Naftali Bennett’s secret to power: He is not Netanyahu

Netanyahu’s downfall might mark the rise of another Israeli leader, even more right-wing than him.

In early April, following the elections to the 23rd Knesset, the coronavirus pandemic saved Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. It provided the rival camp, led by Blue and White alliance chair Benny Gantz and Labor leader Amir Peretz, with a reason or – some would argue – an excuse to forestall the fourth election within less than two years by joining a “unity” government headed by Netanyahu.

Six months, 1,500 pandemic fatalities and more than 800,000 newly jobless Israelis later, Netanyahu’s failed handling of the crisis is boosting the meteoric rise of his nemesis, Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Yamina alliance.

As Israel is struggling with containing a resurgent COVID-19 outbreak, the conservative high-tech entrepreneur who entered politics eight years ago is taking off in the polls.

A recent poll released by Channel 12 indicates that if elections were to be held now, Bennett’s Yamina would win enough votes to get 21 seats, a significant jump from the six seats it currently holds. This suggests that some half-million voters, the rough equivalent of 15 Knesset seats, have shifted from the political centre and moderate right to a religious-nationalist party that advocates the annexation of the West Bank and encourages the settlement enterprise, the crippling of the judiciary and discrimination against minorities.

Yamina, a reincarnation of the New Right party led by Bennett and his partner, Knesset member Ayelet Shaked, garnered fewer than 140,000 votes in the April 2019 elections and failed to make it to the Knesset. So how is it now commanding the support of more than 700,000 eligible voters?

What is it that prompted even journalist Gideon Levy, the far left Haaretz standard-bearer, to hail Bennett, the patron of occupied territory settlements, as “the next real thing … a serious person … running from one hospital to another … a man of action … [who] understands epidemiology, as he did defense and education”?

At a first glance, it is difficult to reconcile Bennett’s stated preference for West Bank annexation over peace agreements with Gulf states with his popularity among an Israeli mainstream that expresses sweeping public support for such agreements. In August, polls indicated that nearly 80 percent of Israelis prefer normalisation with the United Arab Emirates to West Bank annexation.

Bennett’s rising popularity is not due to ideological shifts. The polls indicate that Yamina has taken no more than six-seven Knesset seats away from Netanyahu’s Likud Party (down from 36 to 29). The rest are mainly pragmatic Jewish citizens who had voted earlier for Gantz’s Blue and White alliance and the centre-left Labor.

They are now considering casting a ballot for Bennett not because they have turned overnight into Arab bashers and settlement expansionists. In fact, many of them have joined the public protest against the government’s efforts to discredit the law enforcement institutions.

Rather, Bennett’s main asset is that he is not Netanyahu. As he enters his 15th year in power, Netanyahu’s standing as an irreplaceable leader is clearly eroding. Even veteran Likud voters are no longer comfortable with the Netanyahu family’s hedonistic conduct.

Just last month, as Israelis were suffering under another lockdown, the prime minister took his wife and two grown sons to Washington, DC for the signing ceremony of the peace agreement with the Gulf states. Reportedly, he even brought suitcases full of dirty clothes to be laundered and dry cleaned for free during his stay at the White House guesthouse.

By contrast, Bennett has a reputation of an honest and modest politician, who cares about the security and wellbeing of the Jewish people. And amid the most severe health and economic crisis Israel has known, there is a desperate search for a saviour, or at least a competent politician with a plan.

Currently, under Netanyahu’s leadership, there is a second nationwide lockdown without a clear exit strategy. Some COVID-19 isolation wards have run out of beds and/or staff, while the school system is crashing.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is busy waging ego wars and further honing his political survival skills for the ultimate test – his attempt to evade trial on charges of corruption.

Bennett, as a member of the parliamentary opposition, does not bear responsibility for the flawed health and economic policy. He does not have to tread through the minefield of his coalition partners’ sensitivities, especially those of the ultraorthodox parties, nor to manoeuvre between them and the greater good. Instead, he has mounted his soapbox in the role of the government’s lead critic and has even published a handbook on handling a pandemic.

Bennett is also benefitting from the vacuum created in the political centre following the move of Blue and White from government opponent to partner.

The growing political irrelevance of the alliance was clearly illustrated by the fact that Netanyahu concealed the emerging deals with the UAE and Bahrain from his defence minister and alternate premier Gantz and from Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi (also a leading member of the party). Unsurprisingly, Blue and White plunged from the 35 seats it held in the 21st Knesset to single-digit support in current polls.

The future of another centrist party, Yesh Atid, is also on the line after the open vocal challenge by lawmaker Ofer Shelah to the party leader, Yair Lapid.

Just as important as the three elements helping Bennett morph from the leader of a small nationalist-religious party into a leader seriously mentioned as a candidate for prime minister is the element that no longer stands in his way: ideology. Most Jewish Israelis, from the radical right to the centre, are willing to anoint a leader who does not believe in peace and espouses the arbitrary power of the majority and oppression of the weak.

This pragmatism of the political centre does not bode well for Israeli politics. The rise of Bennett – a man who believes in Jewish superiority and the perpetuation of occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people – will not bring peace, stability and prosperity to Israel.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.