Apr 14, 2021 - World

Israel's election: Netanyahu seeks deal with rival Naftali Bennett

Netanyahu (L) with then-defense minister Naftali Bennett in 2019. Photo: Atef SafadiI/POOL/AFP via Getty

With 21 days left to form a government, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is attempting to convince Naftali Bennett that he should stand behind him rather than trying to take his place.

Why it matters: Bennett's right-wing Yamina party won just seven seats in the March 23 elections, but an unprecedented set of political circumstances has created an opening for the former defense minister and tech entrepreneur to replace Netanyahu with the support of the center-left.

Driving the news: Netanyahu and Bennett have met four times in the last two weeks, including once at the prime minister’s official residence. Bennett had never previously set foot in the residence due to the fierce opposition of Sara Netanyahu, the prime minister's wife.

  • Netanyahu has lobbied Bennett to recommit to the right-wing bloc and refuse to ally with the center-left, Bennett's aides say.
  • Netanyahu offered something Bennett has always wanted: an opportunity to join forces with Likud and gain slots on the party's electoral list and government positions for his supporters. Bennett had previously been shunned by Netanyahu's party.

The state of play: Bennett has told Netanyahu he's ready to join a right-wing government, but that no such potential government exists.

  • The radical right-wing Religious Zionism party has ruled out joining a coalition supported by the Ra'am Islamist party. Both would be required to reach a majority.

What they're saying: “Right now, Netanyahu doesn’t have a government and everything seems stuck. But Netanyahu will put huge pressure on the Religious Zionism to soften their position. If he succeeds, we will join his government," a Bennett aide told me.

The other side: Netanyahu’s aides think Bennett is playing for time in an attempt to run out the clock until Netanyahu has to return the mandate to the president.

  • Then, Bennett will be able to say he tried his best to align with Netanyahu, but he'll instead form a government with the center-left to prevent a fifth election.
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