Despite soaring poll numbers, Bennett appears unlikely to unseat Netanyahu

As talk of elections ramps up, Yamina leader’s growing popularity is drawing attention. But is he a real contender for the throne, or just a way to express frustration with the PM?

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Then-education minister Naftali Bennett arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, on June 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Then-education minister Naftali Bennett arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, on June 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel is almost certainly headed to an election in the coming months.

That’s not based on reading the tea leaves of Israeli coalition politics, nor on surreptitious leaks from campaign managers. It’s based on a simple, reliable assumption: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will do whatever it takes to hold on to his seat.

If he doesn’t call elections soon — or if a legal challenge now before the High Court of Justice doesn’t revoke his rotation agreement with Defense Minister Benny Gantz — he’ll eventually have to hand Gantz the keys to the kingdom.

And so, the spotlight is turning toward what is shaping up as the potential upset bid of the coming race, that of Naftali Bennett, whose right-wing opposition Yamina party won just six seats in the election last March but who has been polling above 20 for the past several months.

Bennett has become one of the most vocal and effective critics of Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic at a time of deep disappointment with the government on that very issue. He has called openly for new elections and gone so far as to tell Netanyahu to exit the political stage.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with then-defense minister and Yamina leader Naftali Bennett during a meeting with the heads of right-wing parties in the Knesset on March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Can he mount a serious challenge to Netanyahu from the right where no opponent has succeeded in 11 years from Netanyahu’s left?

Soaring in the polls

At first glance, the answer seems to be yes. Bennett’s low-20s poll showing has held for months, and Likud’s relatively dismal showing in the mid- to upper-20s has too.

A Channel 13 poll on Tuesday gave Yamina 22 seats and Likud 29. That opens up the opportunity for the sort of coalition that could put Bennett in the prime minister’s chair and Netanyahu in the opposition. Yamina’s 22, combined with centrist Yesh Atid’s 20 in the same poll, Blue and White’s 10 and Yisrael Beytenu’s 7 stack up to 59 — two seats short of a Knesset majority. That’s without counting left-wing Meretz’s seven seats or those of the Arab parties, whose support (even if not full-blown coalition membership) could push the alliance over the threshold.

A Monday poll by the Geocartography Knowledge Group for i24 television told much the same story — a center-right political alliance of parties eager to see Netanyahu removed from office, led by a right-winger with soaring poll numbers linked to right-wing disappointment with the prime minister, is polling within a couple points of a parliamentary majority. It predicted Yamina will take 25 seats and Likud just three more at 28.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett during a visit in downtown Jerusalem on August 5, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Even the most favorable poll for Netanyahu in recent days, conducted November 10 by Direct Polls, offered little solace. Likud may have been projected at a comfortable 30 with Bennett trailing at 20. But even in that scenario, a firm center-right anti-Netanyahu coalition still would draw 56 seats.

Worse, the poll found 13.5 percent of respondents were undecided, a relatively high number for such polls. It’s quite likely that those undecideds aren’t struggling to choose between Netanyahu and Gantz or between leftist Meretz and rightist Yamina. It isn’t likely to be Haredi voters, who are famously consistent in their support for Haredi parties, nor Arab voters, who have been leaning in record majorities toward the Joint List in recent years. Most of the undecideds are likely split between Netanyahu and Bennett, marking another source of possible danger for Netanyahu even in this best-case poll.

Yet another poll, by Channel 12 on November 7, clarified the extent of Bennett’s rise from the religious-right margins to center stage. It asked respondents to rate major party leaders’ fitness to serve as prime minister. Netanyahu once comfortably led in such polls by well over 10 points. In the latest poll, he got 32% of respondents saying he’s the most fit to be premier. Bennett was hot on his heels with 28%.

Disappointment candidate

So is Bennett likely to be Israel’s next prime minister? The short answer: Not likely.

Bennett’s poll numbers are impressively high and impressively consistent. But there’s a bitter irony to his success — it depends on having a Prime Minister Netanyahu to oppose.

(From L-R) Yamina MKs Matan Kahana, Bezalel Smotrich, Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Ofir Sofer at a press conference in Jerusalem on May 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel has a long history of what some pollsters have labeled “disappointment candidates,” contenders that become wildly popular in polls not in their own right, but as a means of expressing disappointment or frustration with a poll respondent’s truest and most reliable political home.

As Direct Polls founder Shlomo Filber noted in an interview this week, the same thing happened after Kadima voters grew disenchanted with then-prime minister Ehud Olmert’s handling of the 2006 Second Lebanon War. For some time after the end of that indecisive conflict, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party soared in polls to an unheard-of 22 seats as he railed against the government’s war failures.

But the surge was not to last. By the time election day rolled around three years later, it had petered out to a four-seat boost for the hard-nosed critic, taking the party from an 11-seat showing in 2006 to 15 seats, but no further.

In 2015, after Labor party leader Isaac Herzog led the Zionist Union alliance to a relatively valiant defeat by Netanyahu (with a now-unthinkably strong 24 seats to Likud’s 30), frustrated voters veered sharply in post-election polling to Yair Lapid, driving his Yesh Atid party — fresh from its own disappointing drop from 19 seats to 11 — to poll in the mid-20s.

The polling numbers weren’t a sign of support for Yesh Atid, but a cry of exasperation by Zionist Union voters. The polls soon shrank back to numbers far closer to Yesh Atid’s actual size in the Knesset.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman tours a shopping mall in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod ahead of the election, on February 14, 2020. (Flash90)

Sudden swerves in voters’ loyalties could mean a great deal, a sea change in attitudes toward political parties and leaders – but they usually mean very little, a signal of short-lived frustration rather than a dependable rally for the new candidate.

The disappointment in Netanyahu among many on the right is real and deep, and will likely leave many new seats with Bennett come election day. Bennett led Yamina to a paltry six-seat showing in March; in April last year he even failed to make the four-seat threshold for entering the Knesset. But he’s done better in the recent past: eight seats in 2015 and 12 in 2013.

With 28% of Israelis now saying he’s a fitting candidate for prime minister (up from single digits a year ago), it’s reasonable to assume the next election will see Bennett push far past his March showing. But no one really knows if it will be enough to reprise his 2013 result of 12 seats or match Liberman’s anti-Olmert rally to 15.

How many of Bennett’s polled supporters think of him as their choice for prime minister, and how many as their “disappointment candidate,” a name to give pollsters to show their temporary disillusionment with Netanyahu, who nevertheless remains most likely to draw their vote when the chips are down?

Last week, as Netanyahu and the Haredi factions bickered over the government’s plan to sharply increase fines for violations of virus restrictions by schools and other large institutions, United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman told a UTJ faction meeting in the Knesset that “Bennett is also an option” for the party’s future support as prime minister.

Then-defense minister Naftali Bennett, left, with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, second from left, Judea and Samaria Division commander Brig. Gen. Yaniv Alaluf, center, and other senior IDF officers in the West Bank on January 28, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Does that mean Litzman actually plans to back Bennett against Netanyahu? The very fact that the quote leaked from the usually tight-lipped faction meeting suggests not. It was a message, a tactical feint. Understanding the message, Netanyahu quickly relented on the fines.

Is Bennett a real challenger for Netanyahu’s seat, or merely an avatar for the frustrations of some Likud’s voters and a convenient foil for the political machinations of Netanyahu’s once and future allies?

Even at his best poll showing in recent months, Bennett has remained a few vital seats short of unseating Netanyahu. To replace the long-time premier he’ll need to do better, not worse, than his already meteoric rise in the polls — and, against all odds and precedent, have all that support translate into votes at the ballot box. Otherwise, the election widely expected to take place in the spring or summer of 2021 will be, like the last six races before it, Netanyahu’s to lose.

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