Netanyahu Rivals Started Strong in Election Polls, but Petered Out. What's Their Next Game Plan?

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Naftali Bennett, left, and Gideon Sa'ar.
Naftali Bennett, left, and Gideon Sa'ar.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg, Adina Valman / Knesset
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

The upcoming election is a rare one, considering the last decade. For the first time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unlimited rule over the “nationalist” camp is being challenged from the right wing, not just by one rival, but by two: Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina. Netanyahu has managed, with great effort, to depict Benny Gantz as far more left-wing than Gantz would have liked. It’s more difficult to do the same with Sa’ar and Bennett.

Both Sa’ar and Bennett started with high numbers in the polls. Both have been on the decline since then. According to Haaretz’s averaged polls, New Hope stands to gain 13.5 Knesset seats and Yamina is projected to win 11.5. This is a far cry from the 20+ they both dream of.

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The next couple of weeks will be critical for these two parties. One of them may grow larger in the polls and threaten Netanyahu, attracting centrist voters. The two parties might remain at their current standing or shrink further.

In the race for heading the government or for getting a rotation agreement with Netanyahu, Bennett has an advantage over Sa’ar. The latter has already declared that he would not sit in a government with Netanyahu, and it seems this commitment is sincere. Sa’ar’s feelings toward Netanyahu are also genuine. He wouldn’t have embarked on this journey only to try and work with Netanyahu later. Netanyahu’s ouster is more important to him than the possibility of serving as his deputy. But Bennett hasn’t committed to anything.

Bennett has already shelved his grandiose plans for a party with 22 Knesset seats. In private conversations he says he’ll get 16, but he tells confidants he might bottom out at 10, which isn’t so bad. Bennett comes from the startup world. If a product is flawed, you change a few features and remarket it to another target population.

His idea now is to serve as the balancing power. Even if Netanyahu gets the majority – 61 out of 120 seats – with Bennett’s help, Bennett is not in his pocket. Bennett wants a rotation agreement, with him going first. Why not try? This will ensure that any rotation agreement is adhered to. Netanyahu will be the alternate prime minister and Bennett the prime minister. For a month, for six months, whatever goes. And if that doesn’t work, he’ll propose the same deal to Sa’ar or Yair Lapid.

Bennett still believes that his messages about the coronavirus are effective, that the public understands Netanyahu is deceiving them, that he is the only one who could have prevented the failures at the airport and prepared a plan for schools. But Bennett also knows that he cannot allow himself another election campaign. The phoenix who rose because of the coronavirus needs the coronavirus – otherwise he has no justification. He’s more focused on the day after Election Day.

In the polls, Bennett’s party has three Knesset seats from the center – those who still believe he will be prime minister. He needs to instill that in people’s consciousness, or they will flee.

In comparison, the atmosphere isn’t so good for Sa’ar. He needs to keep Netanyahu away from those 61 seats, or he will be left on the outside. At Sa’ar’s campaign headquarters, they have stopped imagining what the outcome could be. Everything depends on the electoral threshold. If Smotrich passes it and enters the Knesset while Meretz doesn’t, and Kahol Lavan wastes 50,000 votes, then Netanyahu will be prime minister. If not, then Sa’ar will win the premiership.

In the past few weeks, Sa’ar’s staff was busy trying to stop the migration of voters back to Lapid. They will try to explain that Lapid doesn’t really want to be prime minister, so it is better to let Sa’ar take the lead.

New Hope believes it has stopped the fall and from here on they will only rise higher. The target is to reach 20 seats, and soon the goal will be to try and bring over voters from Bennett and Likud. In their own polls, they see that the great majority of their voters don’t want Netanyahu. But they realize the momentum is slipping away, and they are not ready for the final stretch.

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