'When we needed him to fight COVID, he just wasn't there'

Bennett says he’ll challenge Netanyahu for PM, but won’t rule out joining forces

Yamina chief tears into PM over his handling of the pandemic, says ‘the time has come for change,’ ducks definitive answer on coalition partnership

Then-defense minister Naftali Bennett delivers a statement to the media in Ariel, in the West Bank, January 26, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)
Then-defense minister Naftali Bennett delivers a statement to the media in Ariel, in the West Bank, January 26, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett on Wednesday formally announced he will challenge Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu for the premiership in the upcoming elections, tearing into the prime minister over his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The time has come for change. Netanyahu has a stellar record, but at the moment of truth, at a time when we needed him more than anything, he just wasn’t there,” he said during a press conference.

Bennett said he is therefore running for prime minister, “so Israel will have a leadership that sees the citizens and not itself.” He said a government he heads would focus on addressing the pandemic, improving the economy and promoting national unity.

Bennett was previously a key member of Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and religious parties, but was left out of the unity government formed by Likud and Blue and White earlier this year. In the opposition, he has enjoyed a boost in support amid his vocal criticism of Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett gives a TV address on December 24, 2020 (Kan TV screenshot)

However, his party has bled support in recent polls following Likud defector Gideon Sa’ar’s announcement that he is forming his own platform. In a pair of television polls aired Tuesday, Yamina was forecast to get 13-15 votes—  down from 20 seats — trailing Likud and Sa’ar’s New Hope party.

The Yamina chief said that while he was serving as defense minister (between November 2019 and May 2020), he presented Netanyahu with a plan in March to curb the spread of the virus without shuttering the economy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and then-Education Minister Naftali Bennett, left, attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, Tuesday, August 30, 2016. (Abir Sultan/Pool/via AP)

“A lockdown is the easy solution, the solution of the lazy,” he said. “Unfortunately, Mr. Netanyahu decided to shelve the plan… and thus we progressed into the concept of unending lockdowns.”

Bennett said he would invite all parties that “back a Jewish and democratic state and are willing to put aside their disagreements for a moment” to join a government he leads, but didn’t explicitly rule out sitting in a coalition with Netanyahu when asked.

“I don’t occupy myself with Bibi, he’s not interesting. The country is interesting,” Bennett said, using the prime minister’s nickname.

Netanyahu’s Likud party issued a statement dismissing Bennett’s comments as “confused and tedious,” while defending the prime minister’s approach to the virus.

“All of Bennett’s proposals failed in the world including in Europe, which collapsed into closures with countless more deaths than Israel,” Likud said.

Bennett’s remarks came two days after he said Yamina’s goal “is to replace Netanyahu” and that he will not support legislative efforts to help the premier avoid his corruption charges.

Yamina is currently in the opposition with five seats. Bennett and Sa’ar are competing for the right-wing anti-Netanyahu vote.

Then-MKs Gideon Sa’ar, right, and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset plenum on February 24, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Though Netanyahu lacks a clear path to forming a government in polls taken this week as the coalition collapsed, it was unclear from the results if an alternative coalition could be assembled, with parties opposing the Likud leader divided ideologically and over the question of who should be premier. New Hope, Yamina, Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beytenu and Blue and White would win 60 seats between them, according to a Kan public broadcaster poll on Tuesday, and 59 according to a Channel 12 survey the same day.

The Knesset dissolved Tuesday night after the government missed a deadline to pass a 2020 state budget and as the options for averting elections ran out.

Under the power-sharing deal between Likud and Blue and White, a failure to pass a budget was the lone visible loophole that would enable Netanyahu to avoid having to give up the premiership to Gantz in November 2021. Likud had been holding up the budget for months in an effort to renegotiate a more favorable coalition agreement.

Netanyahu now heads a transitional government until a new coalition is formed after the March 23, 2021 election — Israel’s fourth in two years.

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