Ten years ago, Neftali Bennett entered Israeli politics as the champion of a rejuvenated National-Religious Zionism. Once a peripheral subgroup in a predominantly secular society, the National-Religious Israelis (Datiyim Tziyoniyim in Hebrew) – who blend Jewish tradition with Israeli modernity – are now routinely described as as one of the nation's "four tribes," along with the secular Israelis, the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim) and the Arabs.
In fact, they are much more than that. According to a 2019 survey for Makor Rishon, some 20% of all Israelis and almost 30% of all Israeli Jews identify as culturally National-Religious (also called Religious Zionists) in one way or another. They carry much weight in the army, education, business, and high tech sectors. They even make inroads in academia and the media.
Bennett's original ambition was to transform this growing constituency into a major political force, along or in the place of Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative Likud party – something that implied reaching out to secular-minded Israelis as well. He certainly had the right profile for such an undertaking.
Born in Haifa in an immigrant family from California, Bennett had been active in high school with the local chapter of Bnei Akiva, the National-Religious youth organization. He then served in the commando forces for six years, reaching the rank of major. In the early 2000s, he successfully ran two hi tech companies (spending several years in the United States in the process), which were sold for about 150 million and 100 million dollars respectively. Finally, he acquired first-hand government experience as Benjamin Netanyahu's chief of staff from 2006 to 2008.
How successful was he? On the one hand, he secured from half a dozen to a dozen seats out of 120, Knesset after Knesset, as the leader of the Jewish Home party (he did not pass the electoral threshold in 2019 as head of the New Right party) and eventually garnered seven seats as head of the Yamina party. He was successively Minister of Economy, Diaspora Affairs, Education and Defense in coalition cabinets headed by Netanyahu. On the other hand, he never managed, in spite of several promising polls at the onset of the electoral campaign, to garner a major parliamentary force.
Circumstances today have brought this ironic situation to an even higher level: Bennett was eventually confirmed on June 13 as Israel's thirteenth prime minister and the country's first observant prime minister; however, this is probably at the same time the shakiest premiership in Israel's history. Bennett's Yamina controls 7 seats only in the present twenty-fourth Knesset. The cabinet rests on a frail and heteroclite coalition of 61 that includes such sworn enemies of the Right and the National-Religious camp as the rump Labor party, the Far Left Meretz or the separatist Arab parties. Moreover, the stronger and thoroughly secular Yair Lapid, whose party won 17 seats and who is poised to take over as prime minister in 2023 under an alternation agreement, looks and acts like the ultimate boss.
Bennett's problem is essentially that the growth of the National-Religious constituency over the past ten years has benefited the already established Likud, or a wider Netanyahu-led coalition, rather than his own upstart parties, out of a simple, rational, cost/profit assessment. In fact, Bennett quickly grasped the situation and considered joining Likud himself. However, Netanyahu had no intention to welcome him as heir apparent.
Eventually, Bennett resolved to break the spell by joining Lapid and ousting Netanyahu from the premiership. His calculation was probably that the cost/profit voting mechanics would then work in a reverse way, and that he would be able eventually to challenge Lapid.
In other terms, this was a double gambit with very small odds of success. The National-Religious voters (including those who supported Yamina in the latest election) feel betrayed. Anger may turn into fury if Bennett foregoes, under his present associates' pressure, essential tenets of their platform, like supporting Jewish settlement, upholding the 2019 Basic Law redefining Israel as the "Nation-State of the Jewish People," and restraining the Supreme Court's liberal activism. Unless he reconstructs himself quicky as a very strong and very right-wing leader, Bennett will thus be left with no constituency at all.
Netanyahu – now the Leader of the Opposition, an official function in Israeli democracy – will not surrender gracefully. After all, he won 24.19 % of the popular vote and 30 seats in the last election, much more than Lapid and Bennett combined. Moreover, the conservative coalition he led actually won a majority among Jewish Israelis. Some of his current followers or partners may be tempted to desert him at some point. Most believe however he can come back.
As for Lapid, he seems to have developed a good personal chemistry with Bennett. However, he has his own sense of a national mission, inherited from his father, the Holocaust survivor and journalist Tom Lapid: to consolidate Israel as a democratic and secularized nation. He may be ready to grant Bennett a limited role in this utopia. Should, however, the present prime minister show too much independence, or too much ambition, other Likud renegades like Avigdor Liberman or Gideon Saar are likely to be played against him.
Michel Gurfinkiel is the Founder and President of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a Ginsburg-Milstein Fellow at Middle East Forum, and editor emeritus of Valeurs Actuelles.