Only one politician stands to gain from these very early national elections, and his fingerprints are all over them. His name is Naftali Bennett, and he is proving to be the smartest and most dynamic player in the Israeli political system at this time.
Bennett stands to gain because, according to every single poll, his party is the only one that can be expected to grow by 50% or more in the ballots. Presently, Jewish Home has 12 MKs. The polls predict 17, 19, maybe more. These numbers are commensurate with those Bennett had in the polls in late 2012, before an extremely hurtful – and self-injuring – Likud election campaign reduced his public support.
Bennett is now the likely candidate for minister of defense, come April. Since defense is Bennett's forte – although finances are certainly not a point of weakness for the all-Israeli hi-tech superstar economics minister – this is without a doubt the position he is angling for. The public is not ready for Bennett as prime minister, and people close to him, like Minister Uri Orbach, say so too. But a successful and dominant defense minister who brings security back to the Israeli streets, and possibly spearheads a strike on Iran's nuclear industry, later in his term, is a shoo-in to replace Binyamin Netanyahu at the country's helm, when the time comes.
Leaks from Netanyahu and Bennett's immediate surroundings confirm that Bennett has been talking to Netanyahu about the position of defense minister, post-elections, and that Netanyahu has come to accept that Bennett will be his most senior partner in the next government. Bennett confirmed as much – most likely intentionally – when he scolded Minister Uri Ariel the other day, and told him that his insistence on taking up more space on the Jewish Home list than Bennett is willing to give him will cost the party the defense minister's position.
The Yisrael Hayom bill
When analyzing what led Netanyahu to confront rogue ministers Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni in a way that made these elections inevitable, many point to the "Yisrael Hayom bill" as psychological point of no return. Netanyahu, the man who has withstood thousands of backstabbing knives and poisoned political barbs without wincing, was apparently truly hurt by the bill. He could be seen muttering to himself, “shame, shame,” as the bill passed on the Knesset floor, in the preliminary reading. The possibility that the bill would turn into law was a nightmare to him, it seems – since after all, Yisrael Hayom has provided him with an invaluable counterweight to the leftist press's hate machine.
Bennett may not have voted for the bill on the Knesset floor – but he originally co-authored it. Technically, it was MK Ayelet Shaked, his loyal number two person, who co-signed the bill, but this makes no difference. Bennett was behind the bill from the get-go, causing no small amount of consternation among his loyal followers, who could not figure out why he appeared to be helping out Israel's leftist stiflers. The mystery now appears to have been solved: Bennett wanted to put Netanyahu in a dark corner, and then offer him the way out. This is precisely what happened.
After all, it was only Netanyahu's prejudice against Bennett that kept him from offering the Jewish Home a more senior partnership in the present, dissolving government. Because of bad blood between Bennett and Binyamin Netanyahu – or more precisely, Binyamin and Sara Netanyahu, as many claim – Bennett had good cause to fear that Netanyahu would use him as a pawn in the post-election haggling and eventually kick him out of the coalition, or offer him an insulting position inside it. Bennett countered with a classic move – an unlikely “pact of brothers” with Yair Lapid – that forced Netanyahu to give him the political respect he felt he deserved.
Bennett now says that this pact was a mistake, but of course, it was not a mistake for him at the time it was made. He can afford to call it a gaffe now that his goal has been attained, and Netanyahu has come to depend on his support, in a way that squeezes out the bad blood of personal rivalry between the men, and replaces it with the untainted blood of political allies.
Pushing out Yaalon
If things go as Bennett want them to, this election will mean that his nemesis, Tzipi Livni, and her cohort Lapid, are expelled from the coalition, and Bennett replaces Moshe Yaalon at the helm of the defense establishment. De facto if not de jure, Bennett was obviously vying with Yaalon for that position anyway, as the Gaza campaign showed. It was he who pushed for an operation against the lethal Hamas terror tunnels, while Yaalon preferred to shut his eyes and pretend the tunnels would just go away. Bennett's hyperactive involvement in the nuts and bolts of the operation saved the day, as has been confirmed by people like ex-Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, and left-leaning investigative reporters, who have no reason to give Bennett undeserved compliments. It also infuriated Yaalon, who called it "anarchy."
The threats to Israel are multiplying exponentially, and Bennett's instinct tells him that Israel needs him as close to the helm as possible. The threat of Hezbollah tunnels in the northern border prompted justifiably fearful local leaders to threaten independent action to locate the tunnels, on Tuesday. Parts of Jerusalem are war zones, and every day brings news of a new stabbing or car terror attack. Iran is hurtling toward nukes.
Bennett wants to be minister of defense, and Israel will apparently be better off for it. He may well have been trying to tell us that, when he raised eyebrows by stating several weeks ago that his own government has no right to exist if it fails to go on the offensive against terror.
Several months of venomous campaigning lie ahead, but most of the poison appears to be headed in Netanyahu's direction, not Bennett's. The most likely outcome of the elections is a return to the traditional coalition of Likud and the religious right, with an extremely talented – if somewhat Machiavellian – political leader as minister of defense. While expensive and unnecessary in the eyes of the public, and Hamas "victory" claims aside, the election and its results may prove to be extremely bad news for Israel's enemies in the long run.