How Naftali Bennett emerged as Netanyahu's chief rival on the Right

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: For the first time ever in Netanyahu’s more than three decades in politics, the main alternative to his Likud was now a party on the Right.

NAFTALI BENNETT in the Knesset – he can best woo Netanyahu’s voters by never mentioning him in any legal or personal context. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
NAFTALI BENNETT in the Knesset – he can best woo Netanyahu’s voters by never mentioning him in any legal or personal context.
 Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman issued an unprecedented attack on the government at his faction meeting in the Knesset on Monday, calling upon the public to disregard the government’s directives on the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heard Liberman’s attack and responded by retaliating against... Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, of course.
Netanyahu sent a letter to the heads of all the opposition factions, including both Bennett and Ayelet Shaked of Yamina, accusing them of “harming Israel and encouraging anarchy.”
Netanyahu’s condemnation of Bennett made little sense technically, because not only had Bennett never called for disregarding government decisions, the Yamina leader had actually issued fierce criticism of Liberman, accusing him of “drilling a hole in the ship of all of us just in order to punish the captain.”
But politically, it made plenty of sense. Yisrael Beytenu gets seven to nine seats in the polls. Yamina was predicted to win 21 by pollster Camil Fuchs in a poll broadcast on Monday night that put Yamina in second place behind Netanyahu’s Likud for the first time.
Bennett received news of the letter that Netanyahu had written him from a note handed to him by his office manager during a meeting about preventing educational programs in the periphery from closing down due to the virus.
“It feels wrong to leave in the middle of a meeting, yet this was from the prime minister,” Bennett wrote in a Facebook post describing his day. “Maybe Hezbollah killed a soldier on the northern border and we are being dragged to war? Maybe Netanyahu wants to persuade me to back a lockdown due to the coronavirus?”
Bennett apologized to his guests and left in order to read the letter. His jaw dropped.
“There was no incident on the northern border, and no reaching out to the opposition for a national effort against coronavirus, just childish and pathetic political spin,” he wrote, noticing that his name was purposely juxtaposed to Joint List head Ayman Odeh in the letter.
That night, Bennett condemned the letter further in an appearance on Channel 13 News, immediately after the poll results were announced.
“The letter was sad, because people are waiting for answers, and spin like this letter is not leadership,” he said. “The poll shows the public wants different leadership, management connected to the people and no more politics.”
THE POLL was actually mainly the result of the rebellion in Yesh Atid, which harmed the party that had been second in the polls until now. But the results of the poll – and the Likud’s internal surveys – clearly had an impact on Netanyahu.
For the first time ever in Netanyahu’s more than three decades in politics, the main alternative to his Likud was now a party on the Right.
If such poll figures are maintained, it would force Netanyahu to change the entire political strategy that he has used throughout his career. He would not be able to demonize the Left if his main competition is a party whose name translates into “rightward.”
Netanyahu would also have to reconsider running a campaign against the legal establishment. That campaign resonates well with his base on the Right, according to sources familiar with the Likud’s internal polling data.
That same Monday night, Channel 12 political analyst Amit Segal revealed an incident of a severe conflict of interest by one of the police investigators involved in Netanyahu’s Case 2000. The policeman’s romantic relationship with Yediot Aharonot co-owner Judy Nir-Mozes, a key figure in the case, was covered up by the highest levels of the police and prosecution, the report appeared to prove.
Bennett made a point of releasing a statement that night warning that the report proved that there is a problem with the law enforcement system in Israel and calling for a full investigation. Netanyahu was purposely not mentioned in the statement.
There was no need to mention Netanyahu. Bennett can best woo Netanyahu’s voters by never mentioning him in any legal or personal context. That strategy of attacking Netanyahu’s handling of the coronavirus and other key policy issues and never bringing up the prime minister’s legal problems has been working so far.
With Bennett on his side on legal issues, focusing on them during a campaign could prove counterproductive for Netanyahu, if Bennett ends up being his main alternative. A right-wing candidate who attacks him only on policy and not personally or legally could be his soft spot.
When asked about that possibility, Likud MKs and officials said it would not happen.
“We’ve seen Bennett rise in polls before,” a Likud MK said. “If polls counted, he would have been prime minister by now. We are not too anxious or worried.”
The reason for the lack of concern in Likud is that Yamina’s support comes from all over the political map, which polling experts said is unsustainable. Yamina is taking away some eight mandates from parties in the Center and Center-Left.
Whenever a new leader of the Center-Left bloc emerges, such voters are expected to unite behind the alternative in their own camp. The non-right-wing voters currently backing Yamina in the polls could also be scared away by extreme statements by Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich, who wants the country run by Jewish law, and whether or not Bennett and Smotrich run together, there will likely be a religious-Zionist party that runs to the Right of Yamina.
Bennett’s true political base had been proven to be six to 10 seats, and he could be peaking politically too early now that he is getting protest votes.
If Bennett burns out long before the next election, Netanyahu will be able to continue running his traditional right-wing campaign and focusing it against the legal establishment.
A source in the Likud faction said Netanyahu’s meeting with his MKs on Tuesday night was poorly attended. The source said the party is united behind the need to prevent legal injustice, but not behind attacking the legal establishment just in order to help Netanyahu stay out of jail.
“We do not speak in one voice on canceling the prime minister’s criminal cases,” the source admitted.
If the Likud is not the monolith it sometimes appears to be, Yesh Atid is revealing more and more fractures that were not previously seen in the well-oiled party that heads the opposition. After Yair Lapid attacked his friend turned rival Ofer Shelah at Monday’s faction meeting, Lapid ignored provocative questions from the media that he would have relished in the past, and the MKs awkwardly tried to ignore the elephant in the room.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has also made a point of not speaking so far about what is happening to his former political partners in Yesh Atid. He is also not talking about what is happening in the polls.
“I have never heard Benny speak about Bennett in public or private,” a source close to Gantz said. “The person who should be concerned about Bennett’s meteoric rise is not sitting in the Ministry of Defense. He is sitting [in the Prime Minister’s Residence] on Balfour Street.”