As the time remaining in Benjamin Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government ticks down, speculation abounds on alternative coalitions. Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett has emerged as a hypothetical replacement for the longtime prime minister, even earning a reluctant editorial board endorsement from the left-wing daily Haaretz

Bennett is hardly assured a coalition of his own, if he goes so far as to commit to opposing Netanyahu. The already mismatched coupling of Yamina along with anti-Netanyahu right-wing parties New Hope and Yisrael Beiteinu and the Zionist left and center parties only gets to 58 seats. It is not clear that the right-wing members of this grouping would accept outside support from Israeli Arab factions or that those Arab parties would even be willing to provide it. Yamina only holds seven mandates in the Knesset, tied for fifth-place in last month’s election, meaning any coalition under Bennett’s leadership would likely be unstable. 

But let’s leave aside these considerations for a moment, because Bennett is likely to have greater longevity in Israeli politics than Netanyahu and the very fact that Bennett’s candidacy is being seriously considered has far-reaching implications.

One of these ramifications is the further normalization and sanitization of the Israeli far-right by well-meaning observers on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed, we have seen this dynamic before with the myth of Bibi the centrist. I hope that the prime minister’s behavior in the past two years has finally put this notion to rest; however, it is worth recalling that for a long time many people posited a theory (really, an aspiration) that Netanyahu was actually a moderate hemmed in by more right-wing rivals, that he simply needed more room to maneuver, and that he might even work meaningfully toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians if given the opportunity. There was also reason to believe that Netanyahu’s decision to form coalitions with centrist and center-left parties like Kadima, Yesh Atid, Hatnuah, and Labor might moderate his trajectory. Taken together, these factors lent proponents of the centrist Bibi ideal a compelling argument, undercut only by the inconvenient fact that Netanyahu was not a moderate and at most paid lip-service to two states. As di bubbe volt gehat beytsim, volt zi gevain mayn zaideh.

So it may be with Bennett. Much of the platform of the anti-Netanyahu right has focused on the prime minister’s running roughshod over the justice system. While Bennett does not want to take down the courts for personal political gain as in Netanyahu’s case, a central part of his platform has always been significantly constraining the courts’ power because they are supposedly too deferential to the Palestinians. Bennett supported legislation that would have allowed the Knesset to override High Court rulings, and his political partner Ayelet Shaked sought to limit Palestinians’ access to the court. Then there are Bennett’s attitudes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself: he supports a program that would formalize Israel’s status as an undemocratic state, with annexation of all of Area C while leaving the millions of Palestinians in Areas A and B permanently disenfranchised under an ill-defined “autonomy” regime.

Last week’s riot in Jerusalem has trained many a critical eye toward Kahanist Member of Knesset Itamar Ben-Gvir and his Otzma Yehudit faction. Still, it should not be forgotten that there is little substantive difference between Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who leads the Religious Zionist alliance of which Otzma is part and whom Bennett ran with in a joint list in 2015 and again in September 2019 and March 2020. Perhaps Bennett privately chafed at some of Smotrich’s more theocratic and authoritarian positions, but that was not sufficient to break the relationship for five years, with Bennett and Smotrich even briefly reconstituting their alliance after splitting before the April 2019 elections. Bennett is certainly savvy enough to know that Smotrich’s extremism will not play well with most Israelis, and even that his own more radical positions are a potential political liability. That is why he has been keen to cultivate a public profile as a mature custodian of Israeli governance on other issues, most notably the coronavirus crisis. While he may not have Netanyahu’s decades of showmanship practice, Bennett is the telegenic son of immigrants from San Francisco and surely knows how to work an American audience too. This image seems tailor-made for an audience eager for a responsible substitute to Netanyahu. There is also an argument that the inclusion of centrist and left-wing parties in a hypothetical Bennett government can soften the Yamina leader’s impact, although this may not have the desired effect in the long run as seen with Netanyahu.

I am not Israeli and I can’t tell Israelis what coalitions to make or how to vote. If there really is a possibility of removing Netanyahu from office, his centrist and left-wing opponents will have to decide whether to prioritize unseating the prime minister right away or being more discriminating in their choice of his successor. There are sound arguments for both approaches. Nevertheless, if Bennett somehow comes out on top now, or if he continues to vie for the premiership in the future, we should remember who he is and what he stands for. Any pundit and policymaker who held their breath for Bibi the centrist may want to withhold grand expectations about Bennett.