Can Netanyahu lose to Bennett?

“Bibi go home,” protesters chanted across Israel on Saturday night.Their angry voices will be followed Monday by the latest Knesset no-confidence motion filed by Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid.The weekly protests and the Knesset votes are fueled by the public fury with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s perceived failure to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. Together with a pending December budget vote, with its potential to bring down the government, the overall atmosphere appears to herald new elections.Although the election debate has been dominated by the Yesh Atid and Blue and White parties, Netanyahu’s most likely rival, according to the polls, would be Yamina Party head Naftali Bennett.He came within spitting distance of Netanyahu last week, when a Channel 12 poll showed that the difference between the two men stood at only three mandates.Netanyahu’s Likud party had dropped from 36 in the March 2020 election to 26; Bennett’s had risen from five to an astounding 23.Bennett and Netanyahu have long battled for leadership of the Israeli Right, but it had rarely seemed like a true contest.Netanyahu has excelled at casting himself as a broad-based leader. Bennett has looked like a pale shadow in comparison, with at best a solely partisan audience limited to issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.But Bennett’s perceived brief success in the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic last spring while he was the defense minister catapulted him into the limelight suddenly as a politician with potentially wide appeal.Netanyahu’s refusal to make him health minister – and Bennett’s subsequent decision not to enter the government – has given him a pulpit by which to continually criticize Netanyahu on COVID-19 matters, while bearing no responsibility for the chaos in Netanyahu’s treatment of the pandemic.It has cast him for the first time as a politician who could lead the country. ONE COULD argue that Bennett has long seen himself as a man who could become prime minister.Given his political start as the director-general of the Yesha Council, however, it seemed like kind of a pipe dream, to imagine that he could parachute from the hilltops of Judea and Samaria into the premiership.Still, Bennett went out of the gate with a bang. Initially cast as the dark horse of the 2013 election, Bennett stumbled from his saddle as the new political prince in favor of Yair Lapid from Yesh Atid, coming in with 12 mandates compared to Lapid’s 19.That election was an all-time low for Netanyahu, whose Likud Party got 18 seats and was rescued by its decision to jointly run with Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party.When one wants to know how low in the polls Netanyahu can go and still win, one needs look no further than that election.Netanyahu’s strength has come not from his ability to top the charts electorally, something he has done only twice since the 2009 election, but his ability to dominate a frozen electoral system.In the past decade at least, there has not been enough left-wing and centrist Jewish Israeli voters to form a government, absent the Arab parties and or the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, both of which have been impossible equations – until now.This barrier almost always ensures that any government formed would be dominated by the Right – and the Right is dominated by Netanyahu.Part of that is due to Netanyahu’s incredibly long diplomatic resume, his oratory skills, his deep relationships with world leaders and his perceived ability to stand strong on principled points.He has also gained by heading a party with a centrist-right platform that can pull in both secular and religious voters. Netanyahu has in particularly excelled at chameleon diplomacy that has allowed him to both freeze settlement building and speak of Palestinian statehood while on the other hand to support West Bank annexation.Bennett, in contrast, has led parties on the right that were less flexible and more dogmatic. The 2013 results were never repeated. His unabashed early support for settlement annexation has framed the debate within the Likud, but has never truly gained him a strong electoral foothold.Bennett stumbled to eight mandates in 2015; in the March 2019 elections, his party didn’t even pass the threshold. The subsequent elections gave him a renewed spurt and in March 2020, he ended up with five mandates.
UNTIL THE pandemic, Bennett was best seen as a politician that framed the right-wing debate, then the one who led it. His support of annexation and settlement activity held Netanyahu’s feet to the fire, but never swung the right-wing electorate fully in his direction.When he opted out of this current government, it was presumed that he would continue to champion those issues from the opposition. Instead he has left those topics to others in his party, such as MK Bezalel Smotrich, while he has shed his partisan skin and focused almost solely on COVID-19. In some ways, politicians like Smotrich have kept the core base of Yamina voters, while allowing Bennett to pursue a wider electoral palette.But can the pandemic give Bennett the premiership?Possibly – if the elections were held tomorrow. But at best, the current results strengthen his ability to shape the debate. They also may sway Netanyahu’s electoral strategy.But by the time Israel heads to the polls, the COVID-19 pandemic might have already ended and Bennett’s apparent facility with the disease may play second fiddle to his otherwise partisan agenda, unless he finds other topics by which to nationalize his party.Also, the polls reflect the current break out of parties, but the danger of new elections is the formation of new parties and new alliances.Neither those alliances nor the impact of the pandemic would, however, likely topple the current equation. Should Bennett actually best Netanyahu, his best ally in that government would be the Likud. Without it, he would be unlikely to find enough support for a government. Yisrael Beytenu Party head Avigdor Liberman suffers from that same problem.As long as Netanyahu comes in second, other parties will wait it out, preferring the Likud Party platform headed by Netanyahu to a Bennett led one. Likud politicians may murmur against Netanyahu, but they are unlikely to unseat him.For Bennett to take the Right, Netanyahu has to come in third, not second. Only then, could Likud politicians begin to unseat Netanyahu – and only in that scenario could the Likud play second fiddle to Yamina.

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