Not long ago, the head of the Israeli political party Yamina, Naftali Bennett, was considered a political corpse, but with the outbreak of the pandemic, he managed to revive his image, gradually climbing in polls. And now, with elections looming, he is set to challenge Prime Minister Netanyahu.
In recent days, talks about a fourth round of elections have become common in Israel, as frictions between the coalition partners (PM Netanyahu and Benny Gantz) have become frequent over the inability of the two to reach an agreement over the nation’s budget.
According to a survey on Сhannel 12, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party continues to sink in the polls.
If elections were held today, the party would receive 31 out of 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, a significant drop from the previous 36 seats it got in the last round of parliamentary polls held in early March.
Meanwhile, the Yamina party, headed by former defence minister Naftali Bennett, continues to rise in the polls, and according to the same survey, is set to receive 16 seats, becoming the third largest party in the Knesset.
But the irony is that up until recently, Bennett was considered little more than a political corpse.
Last April, his party didn’t pass the threshold and failed to enter the Knesset, following a rather weak pre-election campaign.
Back then, the public was caught up in the tight race between Netanyahu and his main rival Benny Gantz, and did not want to focus its attention on Bennett, who had failed to make himself part of the political discourse.
His lack of significant achievements hasn’t improved his chances either. The media slammed his performance as Minister of Education and criticised him for allegedly not doing enough to promote the study of Arabic in schools, for focusing on the Torah rather than maths and for bringing Israeli children to a record low in several international tests.
The ‘right-wing’ camp was mainly disappointed by the fact that he was ‘wasting’ conservative votes and that he was dividing the hawkish voters instead of uniting them.
Changing the Current
But then a “miracle” happened. Netanyahu failed to form a government and the country found itself embroiled in another election campaign. Bennett was given another chance to prove himself and it seemed that he learnt from past mistakes.
This time around, he’s joined forces with another religious party to boost his chances of passing the threshold. He’s shown restraint in the media and avoided slamming Netanyahu, preferring to concentrate on “issues that bothered the Israeli public” like the fate of the free economy and the growing influence of the High Court, instead of putting an emphasis on settling scores with rivals.
That tactics bore fruit. After receiving seven seats in the parliament and getting some leverage over Netanyahu, who needed Bennett to form a government, the former was appointed to the position of interim defence minister, a position he held up until recently, when the job was taken over by Gantz, following a coalition agreement he reached with the prime minister in May.
He didn’t have much time at that job. But in the half-year he held it, some have already touted him as one of Israel’s best defence ministers.
He didn’t interfere in the decisions of Israel’s chief of staff, a common practice in the Jewish state. He only set the tone, while letting professional military men do their jobs.
In addition, he let the army carry out multiple operations, including those on the Syrian soil, and decided that Israel would no longer give away the bodies of terrorists killed by its security forces so that the Jewish state could then use them as leverage over Hamas, which allegedly holds the remains of four Israelis.
However, his main achievement has shone through during the the coronavirus outbreak in February. He was one of the first to realise the scope of the problem, established tight relations with experts and came up with a strategy.
He was also the one to demand that the government expand the number of tests offered to Israelis and forced the state to transform its hotels into hubs for housing COVID-19 patients experiencing light or moderate symptoms.
Even after he left his ministerial job, he continued to be vocal about ways to handle the pandemic, established a “civilian” coronavirus cabinet comprised of experts that offered a way forward, and slammed the government for imposing a total lockdown that in his opinion did more harm than good.
And, unlike in previous public debates, where his voice was seen as little more than background noise, this time around, people were listening and polls reflected that trend, especially as Netanyahu was sinking, due to his policies on the pandemic, which stirred a major uproar.
Although his party still ranks third in size and falls behind Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, which boasts some 18 seats, Bennett is already branded as the de-facto head of Israel’s opposition. However, he’s aiming much higher: he hopes to become Prime Minister, to be precise.
His hope is not that far-fetched. Several Israeli journalists have already voiced the idea of him becoming prime minister, and a Channel 12 poll found that while 36 percent prefer to see Netanyahu as the prime minister, 26 percent said they would be happy for Bennett to take over.
— עופר חדד Ofer Hadad (@Ofer_Hadad) August 8, 2020
And now with another vote looming, as Netanyahu and Gantz struggle to reach a consensus on the nation’s budget, Bennet has a chance to improve upon his achievements and prove that he is a heavyweight too, whose voice needs to be considered.