JERUSALEM — Israelis expressed pessimism this week as they celebrated their country’s 75th independence day, fearing that the societal rift plaguing Israel will only keep growing.
A survey conducted by Maariv ahead of the holiday showed that 52% of the Israelis think their ministers are not performing as they should. Another 50% of those surveyed gave low marks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently challenged from both inside and outside his coalition.
Netanyahu's rivals are clearly gaining momentum. Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett returned from the United States last week after a weeklong visit. During the trip, he gave interviews to some of the major TV news outlets, including CNN and Fox News. He also met with some of the most influential members of the Senate and House of Representatives.
During his US visit, Bennett was careful to toe the official line and avoided attacking Netanyahu. Upon leaving Israel on April 13, Bennett tweeted that “the situation in Israel is not good. Israel’s security is in a very sensitive spot. It needs international backing and the support of our friends.”
It was a sharp break from his attacks on Netanyahu and his government on the eve of his trip. When Netanyahu announced in late March that he was responding to the mass protests by putting his legislation to institute legislative reform on hold, Bennett attacked him viciously in the media. “Instead of uniting the people, giving them hope and leading,” he said, “he (Netanyahu) devoted most of his speech to weak excuses and attempts to explain why he isn’t personally responsible, and to blame the previous government and the citizens of Israel with all of Israel’s ills. I will say it as simply as possible: This is not leadership.”
It is apparent that Bennett is trying to be an ambassador for Israel overseas and a political rival to Netanyahu at home. It is a tactic intended to soften the right’s accusations that he (Bennett) helped form a coalition government with parties on the left and even with an Arab party.
But why is Bennett responding to that now? Over the last few days, all signs seem to indicate that Bennett, who served barely a year as prime minister, is launching a comeback. He seems to believe that the current government will not last much longer and that Israelis are starting to yearn for a more moderate, centrist government.
It is a clever assessment given the most recent polls. A survey published by Maariv on Friday showed that if elections were held this day, Netanyahu's Likud party would have dropped to the second-largest party, with only 23 Knesset seats. Benny Gant'z National Unity Camp party would have gotten as many as 28 seats. In the general calculation of Knesset seats to both camps - the survey offers the opposition 70 seats, compared to only 50 for the current coalition.
Odds not in Netanyahu's favor
Although most polls do not include Bennett, since he took a break from politics just before the last election, the current odds are not in Netanyahu's favor. Former Defense Minister Gantz’s popularity is on the rise. He has already passed Netanyahu in every possible parameter. The people give him the highest marks as the person best suited to be prime minister, while if an election was held now, polls show that the National Unity Party, which he leads, would be the largest party.
According to a poll published by Maariv on April 16, when asked to choose between Gantz and Netanyahu, 49% of Israelis think the former is the best suited for the role of prime minister, and only 43% pick the incumbent premier.
Gantz gained the most from the protests against Netanyahu’s proposed reforms. The incumbent suffered enormous political and public harm as a result of the planned overhaul. In fact, after his amazing comeback in the November 2022 election half a year ago, Netanyahu finds himself almost in a state of collapse. Talk of a new election seems relevant yet again. Still, Netanyahu is a powerful political player, even when he is at his nadir. After being forced to postpone his judicial reform, he has managed to stabilize his coalition.
One of Netanyahu’s senior advisers told Al-Monitor that Netanyahu is planning to focus on security and the economy in the coming months. He does not plan to return to his judicial reform without having widespread support for it and is expecting to be invited to the White House in the next few weeks.
In an apparent effort to appease tensions with the Biden administration, Netanyahu gave an interview to NBC last week in which he effectively abandoned his judicial reform program. When the interviewer charged him with damaging not only the Israeli economy but Israeli society at large, Netanyahu responded, “I am looking for widespread support [for the reform].” He admitted that the reforms must be achieved through consensus and said that he decided to “take a break” to create a sense of balance between all the opposing opinions.
This is an enormous challenge for Netanyahu within his own Likud party and the right-wing electorate at large. They expected him to spearhead the judicial reform to counter the judiciary’s amassing of power at the expense of the legislature and government. It is still unclear how Netanyahu will convince them to drop this notion, but meanwhile, he is gaining the time he needs to allay the concerns of the people and tone down the protests against him.
The problem for Netanyahu, is that after their many achievements in a relatively short time, the protesters have no plans to ease off. The fact that these protests were led by powerful groups of veterans and economic leaders instead of politicians has resulted in major changes in the Israeli political camp.
Although Gantz is polling well, Yair Lapid, now the official leader of the opposition and head of the second-largest party (after Netanyahu’s Likud), is seeing a decline in popularity. His Yesh Atid party got only 17 Knesset seats, becoming the third-largest party, in Friday's Maariv poll. In the April 16 poll, when compared with Gantz and Netanyahu, Lapid gets the support of only 17 % for the person most suited to serve as prime minister. It seems as if the more aggressive approach Lapid has taken to the possibility of reaching an agreement on an outline for judicial reform is actually costing him votes. In contrast, Gantz is perceived as being conciliatory and, as a result, is winning seats at the expense of the Likud.
This is nothing less than a political sensation. Centrist parties have failed to win voters among Netanyahu’s base, but this has changed in the last few weeks. Many now feel that the country has lost direction under Netanyahu, so much so, in fact, that its very existence as a democracy is at risk. As a result, they are turning to Gantz. He is perceived as a responsible leader who is not interested in picking a fight. All of this is why Bennett is taking the same approach. He is trying to reach out to a more centrist and soft-right electorate.
But Bennett is not the only person warming up on the sidelines. Al-Monitor has learned that behind the scenes, former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, who was a confidante of Netanyahu, is considering the possibility of forming his own center-right party. In the past, there was talk of Cohen running for Knesset as part of the Likud. Netanyahu was even quoted as saying that he considers Cohen to be his successor. Since then, however, the two men have grown apart. Netanyahu no longer sees him as his heir apparent, and Cohen is toying with the idea of jumping into the political fray.