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Naftali Bennett wants to be the right’s anti-Netanyahu — and it’s working

  • August 02, 2020

It’s been obvious for months that the right-wing Yamina party would benefit from spending some time in the opposition. But no one imagined just how much.

The last four months have been the first time Yamina leader Naftali Bennett — or any Yamina MK, for that matter — has actually sat in the opposition. And support for the party has more than doubled.

Surveys this week gave Yamina between 13 and 16 seats, increasing as the week passed. That’s more than double the six seats his party won in the March election. Likud, meanwhile, is polling at 31 seats (in a Wednesday poll by Panels Politics), a drop of 10 seats from the ruling party’s polling figures a month ago.

The shift of so many seats from Likud to Yamina is no mystery. Bennett has led an energetic campaign against the government’s coronavirus policy — and, implicitly, against Netanyahu’s many distractions and political maneuvers undertaken while Israelis lost jobs and businesses shuttered around the country. “If it isn’t our livelihoods, it doesn’t matter,” ran the Yamina campaign, a tag line that accompanied every photo of Bennett as he traveled the country and met with Israelis who have watched as their incomes evaporated in the coronavirus-induced shrinking of the economy.

Bennett has spent the better part of the past four months urging a dramatic shift in Israel’s response to the virus that includes ramping up testing, giving the army a larger role in quickly building a mass-testing and isolation capacity, and using that capability to isolate the infected while keeping the economy open. He called it the “tweezers” approach, as opposed to the government’s general shutdown, or “hammer,” policy.

Bennett’s popularity comes at Netanyahu’s expense. Netanyahu has spent the past four months politicking as though the virus had already been defeated, demanding tax breaks for himself, insisting on a West Bank annexation and bickering constantly with “alternate prime minister” Benny Gantz.

While Bennett campaigned, Netanyahu’s polling numbers cratered, with Israelis who commended his handling of the second wave of the coronavirus dropping from about 60% during the first wave in May to less than 30% as the second wave took hold by mid-July.

Then, this week, Bennett’s long-demanded coronavirus policy became Netanyahu’s — but only once Netanyahu found someone else who could be given the credit: the government’s new coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu, appointed in a bid to head off rising public anger.

Yet despite Netanyahu’s best efforts, everyone noticed the striking similarity between Gamzu’s approach and Bennett’s.

“What Prof. Gamzu is saying now is precisely what Bennett proposed three months ago,” Roy Sharon, a reporter for the Kan public broadcaster, tweeted while Gamzu announced his new policy on Tuesday.

Right-wing radio host Yotam Zimri was more critical — of Netanyahu. “So Gamzu is essentially Bennett, except that Netanyahu doesn’t hate him,” he tweeted.

And on Friday, in another sign of just how far Bennett’s appeal had spread, United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni was quoted by the Haredi daily Yated Ne’eman lamenting that it was “a shame [Netanyahu] didn’t appoint Bennett as health minister” after the first wave — because he might have prevented the second.

Bennett made sure no one missed the point. If Netanyahu had accepted his proposals four months earlier, while he still served as defense minister, Israel’s economy would be in a different place, he wrote on Facebook on Tuesday. But Netanyahu hadn’t, “because [he] feared ‘Naftali Bennett would be too successful in reining in the coronavirus.’ There are no words to describe the seriousness of this failure. This is a failure of leadership on the level of the Yom Kippur [War in 1973].”

The war — not to belabor the point — that would lead to the resignation of then-prime minister Golda Meir.

There’s an irony here for Netanyahu. He was long the champion of a center-right that could appeal, in its cautious foreign policy and competent fiscal conservatism, beyond the narrow confines of the political right and draw voters from the Israeli center. But as Netanyahu’s campaigns have shifted rightward and toward a more populist posture, openly working to suppress the Arab vote, charging that broad conspiracies in Israeli society were out to topple him, pushing for a West Bank annexation of the sort he’d long shied away from, and increasingly coming to be identified with his son Yair’s penchant for naming “Bolsheviks” and “pedophiles” among his enemies, Netanyahu has lost ground in the center.

And Bennett, once considered to Netanyahu’s right, has gained that ground.

He has shaped his campaign around the kind of politics Netanyahu has abandoned, working hard to be a voice of respectability and inclusion.

Bennett has a plan. He wants to replace Netanyahu as prime minister — though only after Netanyahu leaves politics of his own accord.

On Thursday, Bennett indicated he may not recommend Netanyahu for prime minister if elections are called today. It was a two-fold message to Netanyahu: first, I plan to challenge you for leadership of the right — or at least to position myself as the alternative to you — and second, don’t call elections now, as some believe you intend, because you may not have the Knesset votes after election day to return to the prime minister’s chair.

Bennett doesn’t really believe he can defeat Netanyahu as leader of the right. He leads a smaller satellite party, not the ruling-party platform of Likud. Yet he’s more popular on the right than any Likud candidate to succeed Netanyahu.

A poll last week asked Israelis not which party they’d vote for — which is the choice actually given to Israelis at the ballot box — but which individual politician they’d prefer to see as PM.

Netanyahu led the pack among all voters, with 29% of the vote. Centrist Yair Lapid came second with 23%. Bennett came third at 19% — or roughly two-thirds as much support as the prime minister.

On Wednesday, a Channel 12 poll asked Israelis a slightly different question: Who is your preferred candidate to lead the right? It added Likud’s Gideon Sa’ar, Netanyahu’s main challenger from within the party, to the mix.

Netanyahu came first with 34%, Sa’ar took 22% and Bennett was third at 16.4%.

But that was among all voters. Among right-wing respondents — the voters who will actually decide who leads the right — Netanyahu got 43% and Bennett switched places with Sa’ar, getting 24% to Sa’ar’s 16%.

In other words, Bennett is as well placed to replace Netanyahu as any right-wing politician could be. Meanwhile, his party has spent its months in the opposition mounting a campaign focused on Netanyahu’s weaknesses. No wonder Netanyahu panicked when Yamina MK Betzalel Smotrich presented a bill to investigate judges in early July. And no wonder he’s willing to risk losing the right-wing veto on naming new judges — just to deny Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked a seat on the judicial appointments panel.

Back in February, pollster Shlomo Filber explained to the right-wing newspaper Makor Rishon what all pollsters have noticed over the past year: Yamina is vastly more popular than its ballot-box showing suggests.

Noting that the successful Blue and White party (this was in February) was made up of a number of parties that all came together, Filber suggested the same pattern would take place on the right the day after Netanyahu steps down, and that only Netanyahu’s dominant position on the right prevents it from happening now.

“There’s a gap between the value of the stock called ‘Netanyahu,’ which has risen to 36 seats [in polls at the time] and that of the stock called ‘Likud,’ which is worth 18 to 20,” Filber told the paper. “The day [Netanyahu] no longer leads Likud, 10 to 12 seats will feel free to seek out an alternative.”

Filber might have added, had he foreseen the government’s second-wave failures: The day Netanyahu appears not to notice that the economy is crashing around them, those voters may start to move even before the prime minister’s retirement.

“In all polls we’ve conducted over the past year,” he went on, “we’ve asked respondents who they’d vote for as their second-choice party if they could. Yamina won over 20% [of voters].”

The day after Netanyahu, “it’s the alternative to Likud.”

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