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Netanyahu takes shot at Bennett as Yamina surges in polls

PM goes after right-wing rival for backing no-confidence measure in him; meanwhile, Likud coalition chief vows to tone down his inflammatory statements lest his party ‘pay a price’

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)
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)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday brushed off surging support in the polls for his right-wing rival Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, which has come at the expense of the premier’s Likud.

“I’m not worried about the polls. I never succeed in the polls, only elections,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying in a statement from his Likud party.

He also went after Bennett, who is in the opposition, for voting in favor of a no-confidence motion last week.

“Let him decide if he’s right-wing or not right-wing. I think it astounded many people, it astounded me,” Netanyahu said. “I can understand voting in favor of dispersing the Knesset, but voting for [Opposition Leader] Yair Lapid as prime minister?”

Yamina has dismissed Likud’s criticism of Bennett for backing the measure, saying he was voting to topple the government, not to back Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party.

“I saw a few minutes ago that the prime minister again echoed the false spin about Lapid,” Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked said at the Knesset. “A lie that is repeated again and again doesn’t become truth.”

Then-Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (left) with then-finance Minister Yair Lapid in the Knesset, March 11, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The growing support for Yamina has come amid significant criticism of Netanyahu for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, with a majority of Israelis disapproving of his performance and believing decision-making is being primarily driven by political factors.

According to a pair of television polls on Sunday, Likud would receive 27 seats if elections were held today, down from 36 in the current Knesset. Yamina, meanwhile, was forecast to catapult from its current tally of five seats to 21-24.

Bennett has long had a contentious relationship with Netanyahu but was a part of the prime minister’s right-wing religious bloc until Yamina was left out of the new government when it was formed in May.

Netanyahu’s crack at Bennett came as the premier was required to attend a Knesset plenum session on “the shameful failure of the prime minister in managing the economic and health crisis,” after 40 MKs signed a letter forcing him to appear.

“In most countries of the world, the opposition helps the government fight the coronavirus. Unfortunately not in Israel,” Netanyahu claimed from the Knesset rostrum, rejecting lawmakers’ criticism of his government. “[You’re] wasting time in the Knesset instead of working.”

Zohar changes tone

Despite Netanyahu’s comments shrugging off the polls, one of his most vocal backers in Likud suggested the party would take a hit if it doesn’t change tack.

MK Miki Zohar, the coalition whip known for his wildly inflammatory statements, told fellow Likud lawmakers he would soften his tone from now on.

Likud MK Miki Zohar reacts during an Arrangements Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“I made a decision to change my approach,” he said at a Likud faction meeting. “Ultimately if we don’t adopt the statesmanlike method… Likud will likely pay a price.

“When we cross red lines with things we say against our rivals, I think the public doesn’t like it, certainly at this time,” Zohar added, referring to the pandemic.

He also acknowledged “that I did things that shouldn’t have been done,” without specifying.

Zohar most recently faced blowback for calling for Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to resign and warning that if he didn’t, more damaging recordings of him could be aired.

Zohar’s threat came after Channel 12 news aired taped phone conversations in which Mandelblit is heard complaining bitterly about Shai Nitzan, the state attorney at the time, for failing to close a criminal case against him in which he was cleared of wrongdoing. Both Netanyahu and Mandelblit condemned Zohar’s comments.

Mandelblit in January indicted Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, charges for which the prime minister is currently on trial. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and he and his supporters allege a conspiracy by law enforcement and the media seeking to force him from power.

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