The Center-Left constituency in Israel was never going to overthrow Benjamin Netanyahu, no matter how much they shouted and how long they kept up their weekly nationwide demonstrations. They’d already had three chances at the polls in just the past year, and still Bibi remained on top.
A firm majority of Israelis are right-wing. This is evidenced by repeated election results in which the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox blocs consistently come out with far more mandates than the Left. Similarly, public opinion polls regularly show that most Israelis want a right-wing government.
But that doesn’t mean everyone wants Netanyahu, even on the Right.
Bibi is now facing his first real threat at the polls in the past decade, and it’s not because the Left has finally forged a viable unified alternative. In fact, the Center and Left are starting to collapse. Recent polls show that the leading “Blue and White” party will barely pass the electoral threshold in the upcoming March election, and Israel’s storied Labor Party will be cast out altogether.
No, Netanyahu can’t be removed from power unless the challenge comes from the Right.
And now it is.
We’ve already written about Naftali Bennett, head of the resurgent Yamina Party. Bennett has spent years positioning himself as the natural successor to Netanyahu, a David to Bibi’s Saul.
And a great many right-wing Israelis are going to switch their votes from Likud to Bennett’s Yamina comes March precisely because Bennett has done such a good job of not merely criticizing his opponents, but offering real alternative policies and solutions.
The real threat, however, is the split in the Likud Party sparked by the defection of Gideon Sa’ar.
Sa’ar’s new party, which has successfully recruited a number of big names from both Likud and “Blue and White,” is expected to win close to 20 seats, cutting deep into Likud’s Knesset representation.
Sa’ar and many of those who have joined him have vowed to not sit in another Netanyahu government. And they’ve got the numbers to actually avoid doing so, unlike “Blue and White” leader Benny Gantz, who made similar promises before finally succumbing and becoming Bibi’s No. 2.
If the poll numbers hold, Sa’ar, Bennett, the right-wing Israel Beiteinu party, the centrist Yesh Atid, and possibly what remains of “Blue and White” could easily establish a majority Center-Right government without Netanyahu’s Likud or the ultra-Orthodox parties.
It seems that is what a growing number of Israelis, and perhaps even a strong majority, would like to see happen.
It’s a bit of an odd phenomenon.
Those on the right turning against Netanyahu, including Sa’ar and Bennett, accuse the prime minister of putting himself ahead of the country. They charge that most, if not all of his moves of late have been made first and foremost to ensure his own political survival.
Netanyahu is a survivor, and a master politician, so it’s certainly possible that there’s truth to their accusations.
At the same time, for decades all most Israelis from across the political spectrum wanted was peace with their Arab neighbors. Most national elections focused on the Israeli-Arab peace process, and little else.
Over the past six months, with the help of the Trump Administration, Netanyahu has delivered peace with more of the Arab world than most Israelis ever hoped for. And in so doing, he shattered a number of taboos that for decades only seemed to perpetuate the Israeli-Arab conflict.
And yet, none of that seems to concern Israelis all that much going into March’s election. Sure, Israelis are thrilled by the normalization deals with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. But very few seem to think that it was solely Netanyahu’s doing, or that Israel will be unable to conclude additional deals without him at the helm.