With friends like these: How Netanyahu walked all over his closest ally

Netanyahu’s crushing victory wasn’t so much over the Left, which never stood much of a chance to begin with. His true and ruthless triumph was over the Right, and especially over one man — his closest ally, Naftali Bennett. 

It is difficult to describe Netanyahu’s victory in Tuesday’s elections as anything other than stunning. Stunning not so much for the fact that he had won — this much was reluctantly accepted among most observers throughout the election season. The true shock came as the sheer scope of Netanyahu’s victory was revealed – 30 seats to Herzog’s 24, dramatically strengthening the prime minister’s hand in coalition bargaining and reasserting him as Israel’s shrewdest and most brutal political operator. This victory was achieved not so much at the expense of the Left — indeed, very few seats moved from the “nationalist” to the “leftist” bloc. The real loser in these elections was Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s closest natural ally.

Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett campaigning. (Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)
Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett campaigning. (Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

Of all the parties that went into these elections, Bennett arguably fared the worst, as far as distance between expectation and results is concerned. When the election was announced, Bennett’s Jewish Home was widely anticipated to gain as many as 17 to 19 seats, becoming the second or third largest party in the Knesset and bringing the settler movement a new level of mainstream legitimacy in Israel. The prospect attracted prominent public figures to the party, making it seem like the only one with any momentum in an initially dreary and uninspiring election season.

Bennett’s own goal

Reality, however, proved more mundane. Bennett was quickly hamstrung by his own comrades, who reminded him their party is composed of several factions — most of which are significantly more religious and conservative than the chair. The primary elections, despite Bennett’s best efforts, produced a remarkably stale and old-fashioned list of candidates, instantly stalling the momentum Bennett was enjoying at this point. Then, in a desperate bid to expand the party’s reach beyond the religious-nationalist settlements that were its primary base, Bennett reached out to an unlikely recruit — former football star Eli Ohana, a moderate Mizrahi Likudnik with no previous experience in politics. Despite his lack of experience, Ohana was offered the coveted 11th place on the slate, thought at the time to be safely electable, at the expense of many prominent new members who failed to obtain an electable seat in the primaries.

The move backfired spectacularly, in every direction. Ashkenazi conservatives were miffed by the introduction of a Mizrahi; heavyweights were shocked to have been passed over for political newbie. The far-right of the party was aghast that the red carpet was rolled out to someone who publicly supported the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. And worst of all, actual and potential Mizrahi voters saw the move for what it was — cheap, transparent and condescending tokenism. Ohana’s political career lasted all of 72 hours before he quietly withdrew, but the damage was done. A significant proportion of Bennett’s voters returned to the Likud; others defected to Yachad, a fringe ultra-right party that ended just a few thousand votes short of the electoral threshold.

Trailing in the polls but still vying for some of the same constituencies as Netanyahu, Bennett found himself in a direct and unseemly tug-of-war with the prime minister. After several rounds of mutual mud-slinging, Netanyahu finally settled on smothering his ally with brotherly love. For the past two weeks, Netanyahu’s relentless message was this: Bennett is my natural ally. The very first phone call I will make after I am elected prime minister will be to Bennett. His place in the next cabinet is assured, no matter how many votes he gets. But for that cabinet to happen, we need a strong Likud. Only a strong Likud can guarantee a right-wing government, and only a right-wing government will have a need for Bennett. Therefore, if you want Bennett in government, you should vote for me, instead.

Bennett tried fighting back, but to no avail – especially after Netanyahu renounced the two-state solution on the eve of the elections, eviscerating Bennett’s claim to being the only politician to openly oppose partition. The cannibalization was so transparent that Jewish Home ended up embracing it. On Tuesday night, as the scale of Bennett’s collapse became evident, his number two, Ayelet Shaked, used a metaphor familiar from military training to depict her party’s loss as an act of self-sacrifice. The national-religious community, she said, shouldered Netanyahu’s stretcher; forfeiting any chance of winning the race but making sure the team, the nationalist camp, made it through to the finishing line. On Wednesday, Bennett took up the same line, professing exuberance at the spectacular victory of the nationalist camp as a whole and belittling his own losses.

Promises, promises

It is reasonable to assume Netanyahu will stand by his promise to honor Bennett with a senior cabinet post — if only because the constituencies of the two parties are fluid, and he doesn’t want to alienate Bennett sympathizers after having just won them over. But Bennett’s dismal showing doesn’t entitle him to ask for much, either. It is still possible that Netanyahu will give him the foreign ministry, if only to push the envelope further vis-a-vis the U.S. and the European Union, if this is what he wants to do. Or else he could give him the defense ministry, in case he wants to cut the incumbent, Moshe Ya’alon, down to size and preclude him from any thoughts of someday contesting the Likud leadership. But the defense ministry is the most prestigious post in cabinet; it’s hard to see how Bennett’s paltry eight seats entitle him to that much. It is more likely he will be given the same portfolio as he held before, that of the economy minister (junior to, and not to be confused with the finance minister, which is all but certain to go to Moshe Kahlon.)

It is still too soon to tell whether this defeat will speed Bennett’s personal demise, or allow him to turn on the conservatives in his own party, correctly blaming them for the rout. But it is clear that he can no longer claim to be the most powerful champion of the settler movement, or the new hope of the right. At least for the time being, the prime minister has reclaimed both titles.

An earlier version of this article appeared on The Middle East Eye.

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