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Netanyahu and Bennett: Indications of political change in Israel

The New Right Party leader and figurehead of the Yamina leader, Naftali Bennett, announced he will contest the position of prime minister in the upcoming elections. Bennett called for the Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz to choose either to vote “no-confidence” in the government and form a new one, or to dissolve the Knesset and conduct fourth elections. Bennett’s call is not the only indication of the confusion miring Israel’s political landscape. There is a host of variables that add to that confusion, the most important of which is the coronavirus crisis. 

New factors in Israel’s political equation

New indicators emerged in Israel representing key inputs to the political landscape’s confusion, the most prominent of which are: 

  1. Decreasing political confidence among the Israeli public: 

Opinion polls by the Institute for National Security Studies and other Israeli think tanks, conducted on 16 September, showed that 70 percent of Israelis do not trust the Israeli government. In their opinion, the government failed to manage the coronavirus crisis on the medical and economic levels. Seventy-eight percent of Israelis worry about the medical crisis and 84 percent worry about the economic impasse. 

The polls also showed that 74 percent of Israelis have no confidence in the Knesset. In addition, 37 percent hold Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu completely responsible for the crises, 23 percent see him somehow responsible, and 40 percent see him not responsible for the economic and medical conundrums. 

Moreover, 61 percent believe that a new government must be formed and fourth elections conducted, and 39 percent disagree. Fifty-seven percent see the urge to continue demonstrations and 43 percent disagree. 

  1. Rifts in Israeli society:

The coronavirus crisis revealed the growing tensions between Haredim and secular Jews. Most recently, Haredi Jews were accused of spreading the virus. Both Netanyahu and the Israeli president denied the accusations as they endanger Israel’s security. 

  1. The political difference between Netanyahu and Gantz:

Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who shares the duties of the government with the prime minister, faced some differences on the files they worked together on. 

The differences appeared in: A) The coronavirus crisis: Gantz indicated that the government floundered in handling the pandemic crisis and that the army should take over. B) The general budget: Gantz insisted on approving the budget for the entire fiscal year, while Netanyahu insisted on approving three months. C) Selling the US fighter F-35 to the UAE: Gantz expressed reservations on selling the US fighter to any Arab country, while Netanyahu announced his approval. 

  1. Rifts in far-right movements:   

A rift between far-right religious parties has emerged in a number of situations, such as: A) Ultra-Orthodox parties refused to conduct fourth elections in April 2020, which forced Netanyahu to sign a coalition deal with Gantz. B) The rift also appeared in Netanyahu’s position on the annexation of the Jordan Valley. C) Senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the Haredi community resented the closure of their schools during the lockdown. As a result, Netanyahu reconsidered his decision to lockdown again, and allowed them to hold their ceremonies and meet in forums.

The rise of Naftali Bennett

Naftali Bennett, who served as defence minister before Benny Gants, had preceded all Israeli political leaders, both opposition and government, in responding to these previous indicators, especially opinion polls. 

He sought to work on Israel’s internal affairs through targeting three key files: improving the economy, eliminating the coronavirus with medical tools, and unifying Israeli society. 

According to the latest public opinion polls, the Yamina list, led by Bennett, succeeded in winning 20 seats, which motivated him to promote himself as a substitute for Netanyahu. This success led the Yamina to withdraw from the far-right movements and consider a new name for itself that reflects its new orientations. 

Source: The researcher, based on Maariv newspaper

This withdrawal does not mean that the Yamina abandoned its ideology, but it means that Bennett is targeting a certain set of objectives, the most important of which are: 

  1. Dismantling the Yamina movement and rearranging it according to new objectives that are primarily aimed at stimulating the West Bank settlement policy. This is indicated by Bennett’s position against partial Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, and the refusal to postpone or abolish the annexation of the Jordan Valley.
  1. Removing the Likud Party from the leadership of the far-right movement: Over the past five years, Likud has led the far-right movements, giving the party a base and a political influence that helped shape coalition governments over the past years. 

Bennett seeks to neutralize this specific Likud feature, and make it a feature of the Yamina bloc. In Bennett’s statement, he said he would seek to form a coalition of parties in which the National Union Party has a role. This way, Bennett reflects the trends of Israeli society, especially the Haredi community that is discontented with Netanyahu’s policies in handling the coronavirus crisis and Israel’s presence in the West Bank. As a result, he tipped the balance in his favor.

Netanyahu’s crisis

Public opinion polls seem to favor Bennett. Thirty-one percent of Israelis will vote for Bennett, 28 percent for Netanyahu, and 35 percent for neither. These figures raise an important question, is Netanyahu facing a real political crisis?

Netanyahu seems to face a very wide segment of Israeli society that insists on demonstrating against him due to his failure to manage the coronavirus crisis and the corruption cases he is charged with. On the other hand, he still does not have a real political opponent, which causes him a real crisis. Bennett, on the other hand, has not exhibited rational policy behavior yet. This is due to several reasons, notably:

  1. Bennett does not represent all Israelis: Although Bennett said that his first concern was the unification of Israeli society, and although he won 20 seats representing votes from almost all trends, in reality he targets only the extremist right-wing movements in Israel.

This is evident in his attack on Yisrael Beytenu Party, There Is a Future Party, and Blue and White Party. In other words, Bennett came out as anti-centrist, anti-left, and anti-less extreme right. This way, he aims to form a party coalition with only 40 seats.

  1. Bennett did not provide a clear political agenda: He relies solely on his anti-Netanyahu sentiment, but he does not offer a political program that explains how to overcome the coronavirus crisis and the economic dilemma.

In tandem, Netanyahu seeks correcting some of his mistakes, most notably improving the living conditions of West Bank settlers, who constitute Netanyahu’s most important political base. The United States once again declared its support for the legitimacy of Israeli settlements in the West Bank by approving a series of scientific cooperative agreements with the settlements, which means that the United States is about to lift the ban on US funding of Israeli scientific research projects in the West Bank and Golan Heights. In addition, a new director of the Yisrael program (the medical management of the coronavirus crisis) was appointed by the Israeli government. 

In conclusion, and based on the above, a set of points can be emphasized:

  1. The Haredi society (extremist ultra-Orthodox Jews) is Netanyahu’s most important political base. Therefore, Netanyahu will have to think twice before taking any decision related to their affairs, such as the lockdown the Haredi society rejects. 
  1. Netanyahu can identify the loopholes through which Bennett influences the political landscape, by quickly handling the rifts in the Yamina movement, such as providing economic incentives for settlement communities.
  1. Bennett’s withdrawal from the Yamina movement appears to be a political suicide, which can be understood through two possibilities. This shall be either an attempt to press Netanyahu for leadership positions in any future government coalition, or an attempt to impose a political presence of his party in Israeli political life, ending Netanyahu’s political future and promoting himself as a substitute for Netanyahu or the Likud Party.

Real signs of rifts in Israeli society are building up, the latest of which was the exchange of accusations between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews concerning the spread of the coronavirus. The latest developments in the current political landscape in Israel are imposed by the trends of the Israeli society, which the political elites are trying to translate into some tactical moves. In the same context, the Israeli leaders’ actions do not necessarily reflect the true image of the political landscape in Israel, as the Israeli society is yet unstable. 

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