Naftali Bennet

Naftali Bennet (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Recently published polls in Israel show that right-leaning voters are dissatisfied with Likud and are turning to Naftali Bennet’s Bayit Hayehudi (Home for the Jews) Party. Lapid has seriously declined in popularity.

A recent poll by the Maagar Mochot Research Institute shows that in the wake of Operate Protective Edge many Israelis are choosing to shift still farther right. Dissatisfied with Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s pragmatic approach to the security situation some Likud (coalition) supporters are going farther to the right. Eager to profit from this dissatisfaction stands Naftali Bennet, a former aide to Bibi. Bennet defected from Likud several years ago to take the helm of the floundering Bayit Hayehudi (Home for the Jews) Party. In the 18th Knesset this party stood with only three seats having split from its former partnership with the National Union Party. 

In the most recent elections Bennet led the party, once again united with National Union, to a landslide win with twelve seats. He has been working since then to move the party away from its national religious roots and convert it into a secular right party. This conversion is attracting new constituencies, especially those who are disillusioned with the traditional secular right: Bibi’s Likud. Polls suggest that if elections were held today the party would gain between four and seven seats for a total parliamentary faction of sixteen to nineteen seats. This would rival or equal that currently held by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (there is a future) Party.

Lapid for his part has struggled to retain his popularity as he has achieved many of the major short-term goals set forth by his party, including greater equality in the distribution of social benefits. Many Israeli’s have long held it unfair that the Haredi (Israel’s ultra-orthodox) population receive a greater share of social benefits than secular Israelis. Lapid’s placement in the coalition as Finance Minister, a historically unpopular office, has also hurt his standing. Lapid’s recent stand on taxes may have helped him with his core constituents, secular Israeli professionals, but his party stands at about eight seats in current polls less than half of his nineteen seat win last year.

For his part, Bibi has been able to reassert some control over his own party. In a recent show of esprit decorum, a Likud gathering in Petah Tikvah was filled with ardent supporters who cheered and applauded the PM despite some indirect criticism by other party leaders. A competing event by outliers Danny Danon and Moshe Feiglin saw only a small turnout and had little energy. It presented more as a convention of gadflies than a serious intra-party challenge to Bibi’s leadership.

Bibi recently made a play to retrieve dissenting voters by declaring that Israel will abandon the peace process if the Palestinian Authority attempts to prosecute Israel for war crimes. If the PA were to make such a ridiculous move it would not be as difficult for Bibi to make the pitch to the international community that there is no partner in peace. Whether this move will draw right leaning voters back into Likud’s ranks is as yet unclear.

Likud is not dead in the water, however. Polling at twenty-five seats, Likud continues to hold the first place spot in the Israeli political landscape. When one looks for the ‘mountain’ it continues to be Likud. Labor and the left are as divisive and disorganized a Geronde as ever. Labor polls in once again at just fifteen seats, having failed to gain even slightly from the dissatisfied atmosphere. That Labor has lost no ground is at least a gram of good news, if not a kilo, for Labor’s young new leader Isaac Herzog. He has done nothing to weaken Labor, even if he has failed to grow it. The night is young for MK Herzog and he may yet find a way to put Labor back in second place, to give it a shot at the leadership.

Yisrael Beteinu (Israel is our Home) Party continues to be a force polling in at or close to its historical high of fifteen seats. The party continues to appeal to Russian immigrants who have historically felt underserved by more mainstream parties.

Elections are not scheduled until 2017 and the recent budget deal brokered between Bibi and Yair means the coalition can soldier on at least another year. Lapid had refused to raise taxes even as Israel’s financial sector had concerns over increasing Israel’s deficit above 3% of GDP. Under the deal the costs of Operation Protective Edge will be borne with small tax increases and some increased borrowing.

While it can be difficult to draw meaning from numbers, in one area they do not lie: Israeli voters are increasingly disillusioned with the two-state solution. Right leaning Israeli voters are eager to support parties that openly reject the notion. It is also true that the Israeli left is growing still weaker, unable to find issues that have real traction with voters. Many of Israel’s more centre-leaning voters look to Lapid or Justice Minister Tzipi Livni for sensible policies, but still more are simply confident that Bibi Netanyahu has it right for the moment.

For those dedicated to the two-state solution, storm clouds that had gathered on the horizon are now bringing lightening and thunder.