With coronavirus caseload and subsequent unemployment surging steadily in recent months, public's trust in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has suffered a significant blow.
As the prime minister’s numbers continue to nosedive in public opinion polls, it is not his traditional rivals − or vocal opposition leaders − who are gaining on him, but a rather surprising figure. A fellow right-wing politician and a defense minister in Netanyahu's previous government - Naftali Bennett.
“Naftali was built for this scenario,” said Bennett’s former communications director, Doron Bainhorn. “He’s touring the country, meeting with people, analyzing studies and consulting a team of researchers 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,” said Hay Lugasi, a former adviser of Bennett’s. “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 first coronavirus wave, Netanyahu seemed invincible. His Likud party polled at 40 projected Knesset seats, 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 his 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. "He’s a politician; he has to publicize his actions.”
Bennett has been in competition with Netanyahu ever since he resigned as his chief of staff and entered the political arena in 2013. Bennett has always polled high, only to be left disappointed 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 failed to pass the electoral threshold and Bennett was on his way out of politics, only to be spared by another election cycle, the third within a year.
“If elections were held today, I’m not sure he would get the numbers he’s given in the polls,” acknowledged Bainhorn, who either worked for or advised Bennett during the recent elections.
“We might see [Bennett’s real numbers drop], but not at the same levels as during the past election cycles,” added Lugasi.
As to the actions their former boss must take to avoid another letdown, the two ex-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 said, 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.”
As for rejoining Netanyahu in a future government, Bainhorn insists the reason why Bennett is currently occupying the opposition benches, 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.”
Written by Uri Cohen, published with permission from The Media Line