Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday expressed doubt in Naftali Bennett’s right-wing credentials, as the leader of the nationalist right-wing Yamina party threatens his popularity in the polls.
“I don’t know if Bennett is left or right. It depends which day you ask,” Netanyahu told Galey Israel Radio, noting that Bennett recently backed a non-confidence vote, also supported by the Joint List party, that would have elevated opposition leader MK Yair Lapid to become prime minister. The vote failed and Yamina said at the time it was only aiming to topple the government, not push Lapid into the prime minister’s seat.
Yamina is in the opposition after failing to agree with Netanyahu on terms to enter the current government when it was formed earlier this year. Bennett previously served as a minister in several Netanyahu-led coalition governments, starting in 2013, but the two have had a long-simmering rivalry.
Bennett is notably to the right of Netanyahu on many political issues, but the Likud leader has tended to judge politicians’ right-wing bona fides based on their support for him.
Since entering the opposition, Bennett has regularly issued strong criticisms of Netanyahu’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and has emerged as the leading contender to challenge him in a future election.
Netanyahu also faced a question about his ties with MK Mansour Abbas, who leads the Ra’am party that is in the Joint List alliance of predominantly Arab lawmakers.
Abbas has recently been seen to be enjoying friendly relations with Netanyahu and his Likud party, and has hinted he could support the prime minister in various future votes if Netanyahu takes care of his constituents’ interests.
“I will not rely on the Joint List because they are supporters of terror,” Netanyahu insisted Tuesday.
In a possible response to Netanyahu, Bennett tweeted a photo he said showed dozens of people waiting in line at a soup kitchen in the southern resort city of Eilat, where unemployment has skyrocketed due to the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the tourism industry.
“People are hungry for bread in Eilat,” Bennet wrote. “There’s never been anything like this. Israel must be saved. There is no task more urgent than this for the leader of Israel.”
אנשים רעבים ללחם באילת.
תור ארוך לבית תמחוי בעיר.
צעירים לצד מבוגרים שכל חייהם התפרנסו בכבוד מרכינים ראש. 70% מהאילתים מובטלים.
לא היה דבר כזה.
חייבים להציל את ישראל.
— Naftali Bennett בנט (@naftalibennett) November 17, 2020
Yamina no. 2 MK Ayelet Shaked also responded, saying in a statement that “Netanyahu is the last person who can give Bennett marks” on his right-wing credentials.
In addition to listing right-wing grievances about Netanyahu’s policies, including backing down from applying Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank in order to secure a normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates, Shaked also raised the economic hardships of the coronavirus outbreak.
“There are a million unemployed, lets talk about that,” she said. “Millions of citizens have paid a terrible price for the shocking handling of the coronavirus, and now Netanyahu again is putting politics before everything and choosing to attack Bennett.”
Despite their enmity, Bennett has consistently recommended Netanyahu as prime minister in the wake of all elections in which he’s taken part, saying there is no real alternative to his leadership. This appears to have changed recently, with Yamina saying Bennett will be a candidate for the premiership in the next national election.
A new election has become increasingly likely amid ongoing infighting between Likud and Blue and White in their power-sharing coalition, with tensions expected to come to a head in the coming weeks over the long-absent state budget.