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Tumbling in the Polls, Netanyahu Faces Electoral Threat from Right Flank
Yamina party candidate Naftali Bennett (C), speaks following general a election, flanked by candidates Ayelet Shaked (2nd-L), Ofir Sofer (2nd-R), and Bezalel Smotrich (3rd-R), at the party's headquarters in Ramat Gan, Israel, September 17. 2019. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images)

Tumbling in the Polls, Netanyahu Faces Electoral Threat from Right Flank

Disenchanted voters flock to surprising challenger

With COVID-19 infections, and unemployment, surging precipitously in recent weeks and months, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government has suffered significant and continuous erosion in public trust and support.

As the prime minister’s numbers continue their nosedive in public opinion polls, it is not his traditional rivals − or vocal opposition leaders − who are gaining on him, but rather a surprising face: fellow right-wing politician and until recently Netanyahu’s defense minister, Naftali Bennett.

There’s a leadership crisis in Israel right now, and everyone is looking for an alternative. [Naftali Bennett’s] hard work is what makes him that alternative

“Naftali was built for this situation,” Bennett’s former communications director Doron Bainhorn told The Media Line. “He’s touring the country, meeting with people, analyzing studies and consulting a team of researches and experts. People can tell when you genuinely show an interest in helping them. They aren’t stupid.

“There’s a leadership crisis in Israel right now, and everyone is looking for an alternative. His hard work is what makes him that alternative,” Bainhorn said.

“This isn’t anything new,” Hay Lugasi, a former adviser of Bennett’s, shared with The Media Line. “But in our current reality, people who look at things not from a standpoint of personal gain but of what’s right for the country, are the ones who will succeed.”

Last week, a Channel 12 poll showed Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party within striking distance of Netanyahu’s Likud, trailing 26-23 in projected parliamentary seats. The snapshot was the latest in a months-long trend, capturing the apparent collapse of the prime minister’s support. Only four months ago, after managing to form a governing coalition and seemingly overcoming the virus’s first wave, Netanyahu seemed invincible, with numbers topping 40, an all-time high.

While his advisers and friends gush about Bennett’s commitment and sincerity, the former defense, education and economy minister has been repeatedly accused by opponents of being superficial and playing politics for the crowd. His decision to publish a Hebrew-language book in August titled How to Defeat an Epidemic: The Way to Overcome the Crisis and Lead Israel to Economic Prosperity was ridiculed by detractors as presumptuous and out of touch.

“For people who don’t know him, his public persona doesn’t fit with his personality. They call him a populist, but the opposite is the case,” Bainhorn said in Bennett’s defense. He’s a politician; he has to publicize his actions.”

While his party’s proximity to the Netanyahu’s Likud is unprecedented, Bennett has been in this situation before. Ever since resigning as Netanyahu’s chief of staff and joining the political fray in 2013, Bennett has time and again received glowing numbers in pre-election surveys, only to disappoint on Election Day, with many right-wing voters breaking for Netanyahu at the last moment.

Still, Bennett’s soaring numbers are all the more astounding when considering that less than a year ago, his party received zero seats in parliament and Bennett was on his way out of politics, only to be spared by another election cycle, the third of the year.

“If elections were held today, I’m not sure he gets the numbers he’s given in the polls,” acknowledged Bainhorn, who either worked for or advised Bennett during the three recent elections.

Naftali is very pragmatic. I wouldn’t rule out anything

Added Lugasi: “We might see [Bennett’s real numbers drop], but not at the same levels of the past cycles.”

As to the actions their former boss must take to avoid another letdown, the two former advisers differ.

“He needs to make some tough decisions. He has to reach the widest base of support without limiting himself in any way,” Lugasi explained, referring to Bennett’s dilemma of whether to detach himself from the more extreme elements of his party who may turn off center-right voters.

“Naftali is very pragmatic,” he continued. “I wouldn’t rule out anything. He knew how to work with [center-left politician and current opposition leader Yair] Lapid in past governments. He could easily work together with other centrist parties that may join. Anything is possible.”

But maneuvering to the political center may come at a cost.

“I don’t think [moving to the center] is necessarily the right move,” Bainhorn said. “Sure, he has to bring in people from the entire political spectrum, and there aren’t a lot of secular people with him now. But on the other hand, you don’t want to make the religious right-wing voters feel neglected.”

Maybe it’s finally time to disconnect from Netanyahu

As for rejoining Netanyahu in a future government, Bainhorn insists that the reason Bennett is currently occupying the opposition benches and not a seat at the cabinet table, is Netanyahu himself.

“He chose not to invite [Bennett] into the government. That ended their relationship,” Bainhorn said. “Maybe it’s finally time to disconnect from Netanyahu.”

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