The Yamina party, headed by Naftali Bennett, is soaring in the polls. According to pundits, the main reason is the trust he has earned from the public through his performance during the coronavirus crisis.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is afraid (for his health? of the public’s anger?) and never leaves his citadel to experience what’s happening on the ground and encourage burned out medical staffers. Bennett, even though he no longer holds any ministerial position, has been crisscrossing the country, lending an ear, encouraging and proposing creative solutions. After all, the coronavirus, not ideology, is the main reason for Yamina’s popularity.
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The virus has indeed accelerated loss of trust in Netanyahu, including on the right. But Bennett’s rise also attests to an undercurrent that predates the coronavirus among people who have defined themselves as rightists in recent years.
Essentially, it involves a slow but clear process of weaning themselves off Netanyahu. Their disappointment in him, and not (only) Bennett’s medal-worthy coronavirus performance, is one of the main reasons why five to six Knesset seats have migrated from Netanyahu’s Likud to Yamina.
Most of those who have left are “strategic voters” – after all, the main battle is between the right and the left – from the religious Zionist community. To date, they have voted for whoever they see as the leader of the right. Now that it has become clear to them that Netanyahu is using their votes for his own personal ends, they have begun “coming home.”
Additional seats are flowing to Bennett from the remnants of the Kahol Lavan party, as well as from sources that aren’t completely clear. When a centrist abandons Kahol Lavan for Yamina, he knows that his vote won’t only lead to an improvement in the fight against the virus. He’s familiar with the ideological profile of Yamina politicians such as Ayelet Shaked, Bezalel Smotrich, Matan Kahana and Orit Strock.
Bennett has invested a lot of energy in formulating plans to curb the coronavirus. But his answer to one of the most important questions – how to sever the chain of infection in the ultra-Orthodox community – remains vague. In this, he is like every other politician. If he aspires to truly lead Israel during the supreme test it currently faces, his first obligation is to present a plan and carry it out with the resolution of a leader who can see beyond his nose.
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Absent revolutionary changes in ultra-Orthodox society, the state, even under honorable leadership, may well collapse under its weight. To date, most of the political establishment has chosen to run away from this inevitable conclusion. But then the coronavirus, and especially the scenes of the past few days, came along and brought the problem to the fore in all its severity.
The only step that can be taken, on the very day after the next election, is to leave the ultra-Orthodox parties in the opposition, cancel all the government funding that allows them to maintain their atrophied lifestyle and condition state funding for ultra-Orthodox schools on their teaching an extensive core curriculum.
Any prime minister who does this will win the esteem and gratitude of most Israelis, and eventually, of the ultra-Orthodox as well. Only then will he deserve to be called a revolutionary leader – a trait lacking in our last four prime ministers.
The reputation he earns by doing this would also enable him to realize additional dreams, including taking advantage of the pandemic to increase immigration and improve immigrant absorption, reduce socioeconomic gaps, give new momentum to settlement throughout the Land of Israel and restore the reins of government to the hands of the cabinet and Knesset.
If he can avoid growing arrogant, if he adopts the attitude of the Yom Kippur liturgy – “Here I am, impoverished in deeds and merit, trembling and afraid” – and sticks to it throughout his term of office, he may well put Israel back on the high road and lead it to the place it deserves in its own eyes and that of the world. To borrow from our rabbinic sages, “Just be strong and of good courage ... take care to do what is good and right ... and do not deviate from them, either to the right or to the left.”