Since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for new parliamentary elections last fall, the conventional wisdom in the country has been that this would be one of the most boring political seasons in recent memory, with the outcome preordained: Netanyahu and his rightist coalition would sweep to victory.
Now, however, with less than two weeks to go before the Jan. 22 balloting, Israeli pollsters are predicting a surprise. Netanyahu will still be prime minister when the votes are counted. But instead of the 43 to 45 seats his coalition once was expected to hold in the 120-seat Knesset, polls show that number will be just 35.
The reason? Netanyahu is facing a major challenge from the right, in the form of Naftali Bennett, the son of American immigrants and the head of the Bayit HaYehudit party. The name means “Jewish home.”
"The excitement of Netanyahu has worn off, and he discovered he would have to fight a bit for his job," said Chava Mizrachi, a 35-year-old lawyer who said that after years of voting for Netanyahu she was thinking of casting her ballot for Bennett.
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"I guess like a lot of people I just feel disappointed in him. It’s like he’s gotten complacent," she said of Netanyahu.
Her comments about Bennett were far more complimentary. "He’s fresh and not from the corrupted old political system," she said. "I think his appeal is that he seems like a modern-day success story."
Israeli analysts say Bennett has emerged as a surprising force. His party, which just a few years ago was struggling to link with other nationalist movements and scrape into parliament with two or three seats, now looks poised to win 14 to 17, making it one of the top three factions.
According to pollsters, seven to 10 of those seats will come at Netanyahu’s expense.
"We see, time and time again, that voters are switching from Netanyahu to Bennett," said one Israeli pollster who briefed reporters on the condition that he not be further identified. "This is one of the main trends of these elections."
Bennett is credited with re-energizing the party among young voters, particularly those who identify with Israel’s West Bank settler movement.
Earlier this month, when Bennett visited the West Bank settlement of Ariel, the crowd broke into a standing ovation when he walked into the auditorium. The gathering was at a school that had just been declared the first Israeli university in the occupied West Bank, and Bennett used that fact to rouse his partisans further.
“I am so glad I can call you now a university. This is the thing you always deserved," Bennett said. The crowd’s cheers grew even wilder.
"I am here to tell you that all of Israel will remain whole," he said, adding that "Judea and Samaria," the biblical names for the West Bank – which settlement proponents favor – will always remain under Israel’s control.
Bennett’s outspoken support of the movement has forced Netanyahu’s Likud Party to take ever more extreme positions in favor of Jewish Israelis’ setting up camp in the West Bank, something the United States and other Israeli allies consider illegal under international law.
Last month, one of Netanyahu’s Cabinet ministers called for Israel to begin annexing the West Bank gradually. His comments were followed by those of Moshe Feiglin, a popular Likud candidate for parliament, who said Israel should take money from its defense budget to offer $500,000 to each Palestinian who’d move to another country.
"These extreme statements are actually good for Netanyahu. They serve him in the battle for right-wing votes that have shifted from the Likud to the Jewish Home Party," the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot said recently, quoting an unnamed Likud figure.
The paper added that Netanyahu was loath to bring Bennett into his coalition but that Bennett’s popularity might force the prime minister to bend to Bennett, who got his political start as an aide to Netanyahu.
"Netanyahu had hoped that the boost he experienced early on in this election season would last him through the Jan. 22 vote," said a Likud Party candidate who spoke with the McClatchy earlier this week only on the condition of anonymity, because he didn’t want to criticize his party’s leader publicly. “Many in the party think he mismanaged our party, and lost us a lot of votes."
Israel’s three center-left parties, which polls show are likely to win seven to 12 seats, have said they might unite in a show of force against Netanyahu. Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister who’s the leader of the new Movement party, has tried to unite several groups in an umbrella movement that would pose an alternative to Netanyahu.
Other parties in parliament, including those that represent Israel’s Arab population, have said they’ve been left on the sidelines and they aren’t expected to take part in any government coalition.
"This year fewer Palestinians will vote than ever before, and it is because each year we feel more and more disconnected from this entire political system," said Bassel Atas, who’s running on the Arab-Israeli Balad Party list.
He pointed to polls, including one that Israel’s Channel 2 News recently conducted, that find that for the first time this year, fewer than 50 percent of Israel’s Arab population will vote in the elections.