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Joseph Puder, Naftali Bennett is projected to be the kingmaker.

Although Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu is facing a long-delayed trial, his party – the Likud – is rising in the polls. Six weeks to Election Day, on March 23, 2021, is a long time in Israeli politics, and it has the potential for many surprises. The discernible trend has been an upward climb for the Likud, which remains the largest party with a wide margin between it and the next party. Netanyahu, moreover, has been polled consistently as the most qualified to serve as prime minister.

The Irony about the upcoming election is that it is more than likely to end up in another draw, and possibly a fifth election in two years. The last two years have been essentially a story of two blocs: the anti-Bibi camp, which includes all the center-left parties, of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid,  Merav Michaeli’s Labor party, Nitzan Horowitz’s Meretz, and Benny Gantz, the current Defense Minister and leader of the Blue and White party.  They are joined by Gideon Saar’s New Hope party and Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beitenu.  Naftali Bennett’s center right Yamina  (rightward), is potentially in this camp, too.

In this election cycle, Naftali Bennett (48, pictured above) is the clear kingmaker. While ideologically Bennett is much closer to the pro-Bibi bloc, which includes the Orthodox parties of Shas (Sephardic), Torah Judaism (Ashkenazi), and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism.  (Netanyahu pushed Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir of Jewish Strength or Otzma Yehudit, to merge, since separately neither would cross the electoral threshold of 3.25% of the vote, and thus, right wing votes would go to waste.) Bennett has however, declared his ambition to replace Netanyahu as prime minister.  He believes that he is qualified for the job.

Bennett began his political career as Netanyahu’s Chief of Staff, where he served from 2006 to 2008. In 2010, he was elected as Director General of the Judea and Samaria Council. He opposed the settlement freeze US President Obama imposed on Israel, and subsequently, in 2012, moved away from the Likud and formed his own party – the Jewish Home. In the 2013 Knesset (Israeli Parliament) election, Bennett’s Jewish Home received 12 seats. In the last election cycle, in March, 2020, Bennett’s renamed party, Yamina, received six seats. In all previous contests, he served in Netanyahu’s coalition governments, except the last one.

The Arab Joint List, led by Ayman Odeh, received a record 15 seats in the March, 2020 election. At the deadline for the submission of party lists on February 4th, 2021, Mansour Abbas, leader of Raam (United Arab List), the Islamic movement faction, has split away from the Joint List. The anti-Zionist nature of the Joint List that voted against the “Abraham Accords” last year and represents the interests of the Palestinians in the West Bank rather than the needs of their own constituents has had many unhappy traditional voters. These voters have expressed their dissatisfaction with the party leadership, and polls are predicting a steep decline for the party. Arab-Israeli voters are seeking to integrate into Israeli society and partake in its economic life. It is likely to see an increased number of Arab voters join Zionist parties in the upcoming elections.

The latest poll conducted by the left-leaning Kan News (Israeli TV Channel 11), on February 9, 2021, pointed out that the Netanyahu bloc consisting of the Likud, the Ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and Torah Judiasm, along with Smotrich’s Religious Zionism and joined by Bennett’s Yamina would reach 62 seats in the 120 seats Knesset (Israeli parliament), enough to form a stable coalition government. The anti-Netanyahu bloc, including the parties of Yair Lapid, Gideon Saar, Avigdor Lieberman, Michaeli, and Gantz would get together with the Joint List 58 seats. The problem for this bloc is that neither Lieberman nor Saar can afford to depend on the Joint List due to their Jewish nationalist constituents. Without the Joint List, the anti-Bibi bloc has only 49 seats, the same as the Netanyahu bloc. But, should Bennett join them, they too will be able to form a coalition government.

According to the Kan News poll, the leftist Meretz party would not cross the electoral threshold, and neither does the Arab Raam party. Ron Huldai, the Mayor of Tel Aviv, who hastily formed a party named The Israelis, pulled out of the race, as did Moshe Ya’alon, who previously formed the foursome that led Blue and White. The former Chief of Staff, founder and leader of the Telem party, decided to quit politics for a while. The same goes for Yaron Zelekha, who founded the Economic party and Ofer Shelach, who split away from Yesh Atid over ego (he questioned Lapid’s being #1 on the party list) and formed his own party, Tnufa.

The Kan News poll distributed the seats as follows: Likud 29, Yesh Atid 18, New Hope 14, Yamina 13, the Joint List 9, Shas 8, Torah Judaism 7, Labor 7, Israel Beitenu 6, Religious Zionism 5, and Blue and White 4.

The difference between the upcoming election and the one a year ago is that Netanyahu’s primary rival, Gideon Saar, is a solid right-winger who shares Netanyahu’s ideology and worldview. Saar (57) entered politics in 1999, serving as cabinet secretary in Netanyahu’s first government. Elected to the Knesset in 2002, he served as the Likud’s Interior and Education minister. In 2018, he challenged Netanyahu for the Likud leadership and lost by 28% to 72%.

Whereas Benny Gantz, last year’s main Netanyahu challenger, didn’t have a clear ideological agenda beyond replacing Netanyahu.   Saar likewise is running on a platform primarily based on a pledge to form a government without Netanyahu. But, Saar unlike Gantz, is even more of a dogmatic right-winger than Netanyahu. He advocated Israel’s unilateral annexation of Judea and Samaria. On his campaign trail, Saar spoke of restoring respect for state institutions, leading Israel out of the pandemic and subsequent economic recovery. Israel’s voting public is basically conservative, leaning right of center, and it is reflected in the Likud’s long-lasting strength.

The case of Benny Gantz, the former Chief of Staff and leader of the now mostly deserted Blue and White party, is politically a tragic one. He joined Netanyahu’s coalition government in spite of pledging that he won’t sit in a government with him. At the same time, he was willing to form a minority government that depended on the Joint List backing. The objection of two of his party members, who refused to accept dependence on an anti-Zionist and hostile party, compelled Gantz to settle for a Prime Minister Rotation deal with Netanyahu. Gantz came close to his goal of being the Prime Minister; in September he would have replaced Netanyahu as Prime Minister. The Netanyahu government failure to pass the 2020 budget by December, 2020, constitutionally mandated by the Knesset, required the Knesset to be dissolved, and new elections to be called. Now Blue and White would be lucky to cross the electoral threshold.

The problem with the anti-Bibi bloc is that each one of its leaders; Lapid, Saar, and Bennett, seeks to become Prime Minister. Moreover, while Saar and Bennett share a right-of-center ideology, both are far apart from Lapid.  Saar and Bennett compete for the same voters, and Bennett never pledged “not to sit with Netanyahu.” While together Lapid, Saar, and Bennett could defeat Netanyahu and his partners, they could not form a functional government that would last for a full term. It leaves Israel with another political gridlock, or alternatively, another Likud-led Netanyahu government coalition. Naftali Bennett will decide which way it goes…

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