When you do the math, there’s no way around crowning Naftali Bennett as the new kingmaker
Aside from the ubiquitous highway billboards funded by campaign war chests, there is little indication that next Tuesday is Election Day in Israel.
Disinterest is running high.
Campaign banners that would normally flap from Jerusalem apartment balconies in the brisk late-winter winds are conspicuously absent. My ritual pre-election visit to Tel Aviv last week to take the pulse of the secular left drew a blank. One busy corner I often visit on Balfour Street near Allenby that is normally teeming with campaign activists had been converted into a coronavirus testing center. Needless to say, I beat a hasty retreat.
Even at the Port of Tel Aviv, normally decked out with booths and tables staffed by youthful party volunteers, there was no hint of an impending election. It should have been fertile ground, considering the streams of customers patronizing the dockside restaurants newly reopened for business.
It’s too bad. I was looking forward to another encounter with the long-haired Labor Party volunteer I met there last year. He frowned at first when I told him I vote for UTJ, but then he confessed, “My brother votes for UTJ too. He’s a chozer b’teshuvah.”
My informal street tours tell me that turnout will fall short of the 70 percent recorded in the last election in March 2020. Israelis are tired of deadlocked government, but four elections in two years have dulled political senses. With so many parties — right and left — competing for the same voters, apathy and indecision reign supreme. Oversized egos of party leaders prevent like-minded parties from banding together for the common good — or evil, depending on your political viewpoint.
How does all this play into next week’s vote?
According to conventional wisdom, low turnout from voter burnout is hazardous to Binyamin Netanyahu. Bibi contends that if every citizen who once voted for the Likud returns to the fold, his party will win 40 seats. I wouldn’t argue with him on the math, but it’s wishful thinking, even though Gideon Saar’s star has faded. The latest Israel Hayom poll shows only 10 percent believe that Saar — who bolted from the Likud to challenge Netanyahu — is a capable replacement for Bibi, yet the survey still shows Saar’s party winning 11 seats. Pollsters who’ve crunched the numbers estimate four of Saar’s mandates will come at the Likud’s expense.
Other former Likud voters view Naftali Bennett as a younger version of Bibi. They perceive the 48-year-old former high-tech entrepreneur and his second-in-command, Ayelet Shaked, as a dynamic duo who will curb the outsized power of the High Court. The more religious Sephardic Likud voters could just as easily vote for Shas. And the religious Zionist party is resurgent under the leadership of Bezalel Smotrich, who may also peel away some of the Likud’s far-right voters.
The New Kingmaker
Toss UTJ into the mix and the pro-Netanyahu bloc of the Likud, Shas, UTJ, and Smotrich should win 50-plus seats.
When you do the math, there’s no way around crowning Naftali Bennett as the new kingmaker. And Bennett is milking this for everything it’s worth.
Most polls show Bennett winning 11 or 12 seats. With this number, Bennett has made the following calculation: If he and the anti-Bibi forces win 61 seats or better, Bennett will vie for President Rivlin’s go-ahead to form a coalition led by a Bennett-Lapid-Saar triumvirate. That’s Bennett’s Plan A.
However, Bennett has never ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led coalition — if the payoff is right. So if the anti-Bibi forces fall short of 61, Bennett will then opt for Plan B and leverage his mandates to drive a hard bargain with Netanyahu. He will either demand Bibi agree to a rotation for prime minister — something Bibi has rejected outright — or insist Bibi dole out top cabinet posts for him, Shaked, and other party members.
Even the latter demands would place Bibi in an awkward position. Agreeing to Bennett’s demands would freeze out many of Bibi’s Likud loyalists, who have waited impatiently through three elections for cabinet posts they feel they deserve.
What’s Left of the Left?
It should never have come to this.
The Israel Hayom poll shows that 58 percent of the voting public are either right-wing or center-right. Some 20 percent label themselves centrists. Only 19 percent call themselves left, or center-left.
What’s surprising is that those percentages of right versus left don’t budge even among respondents who call themselves “chiloni.” If the poll is accurate, then the stereotype of the average secular Israeli holding left-wing views has been unmasked as a figment of the imagination of opportunistic politicians pandering to a shrinking pool of voters, perpetuated by the media.
If Israel had a two-party system, this election would end in a landslide for the political right. Instead, some 39 parties — the majority of which no one has ever heard of — are undermining each other.
So which way is the election likely to go?
A Bennett-Lapid-Saar triumvirate is only feasible if they win 40-plus seats combined and all of the small center or center-left factions, including Labor, Blue and White, and Meretz, pass the threshold. Then, if avowed anti-Bibi-ist Avigdor Lieberman wins eight or nine seats, he could push the anti-Bibi forces over the top.
It’s the least likely of the two main scenarios, according to the latest polls at press time, but it’s mathematically possible.
That’s why Netanyahu is devoting the campaign’s final days to discrediting Bennett and Lapid. But he’s not lambasting Bennett as hard as Lapid. Bibi needs Bennett.
Bibi’s best-case scenario is that Bennett wins just enough seats to push the pro-Bibi forces over 61, and that one or more of the center-left or left parties falls short of the 3.25 percent threshold, ruling out any mathematical chance for Bennett to be part of a governing coalition without subordinating himself to Bibi.
Netanyahu can live with Bennett as the kingmaker. He can’t live with him as an usurper to the throne.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 853)
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