JERUSALEM – Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is the model of a calm, cool and collected political operative.
In television interviews, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is smooth and effective when he wants to be – in both Hebrew and English – and combative and on offense when that better suits him.
But behind the scenes, Netanyahu and his re-election team know they are facing the toughest race since 1999, the year he was voted out of office for the first and only time.
Bibi’s Likud party is well ahead of any other, but steadily losing ground.
THE LATEST POLL
The latest poll – released Tuesday night – puts Likud at 28 seats, down from their current 36.
That’s not the problem.
The problem is that so many leaders of other political parties are vowing never to serve in a coalition with him, which is steadily narrowing his options for building a government of at least 61 seats.
Even if Netanyahu were able to cobble together the support of all the right-wing parties that have not ruled out working with him, the latest poll indicates he would only have 47 seats.
He needs 61 to form a government.
For weeks, Naftali Bennett, head of the Yamina (“Rightward”) party, has been called the “kingmaker,” meaning whoever forms the next government absolutely needs all of Yamina’s seats.
But right now, Yamina is only polling at 11 seats.
So even if Bennett wanted to help Netanyahu get back in office, that would only put Netanyahu at 58 seats – three shy of a governing coalition.
BENNETT SAYS IT’S TIME TO “FIRE” BIBI
Complicating things further, even though Bennett was once Netanyahu’s chief of staff and closest political advisor and ally, Bibi fired Bennett as defense minister in 2019.
And now comes an explosive interview in which Bennett accuses Netanyahu of badly managing the COVID-19 crisis and economic crisis and wearing out his welcome.
“There’s no competent management of this country,” Bennett said on Israel’s i24 TV news network “If it were a company, the CEO would be fired. And it's time to fire the CEO and bring in a new CEO; a new leader.”
It was tough talk – the toughest I’ve heard Bennett use in this campaign – but he was not finished.
“It’s time to say ‘thank you’ to Netanyahu, which I do appreciate his contribution,” but Bennett argued that “He’s not going to be able to unite the country. He doesn't have the ability these days to reinvigorate Israel. And that's what we need.”
Bennett was quick to say he was not ruling out building a coalition with the Likud party – that he was not suggesting a “boycott” of Likud – but he seemed rather clear that Netanyahu has to go.
IF NOT BIBI, THEN WHO?
If the polls continue on the same general trajectory and Netanyahu cannot form a government, who might?
The leading contender would be Gideon Sa’ar.
Sa’ar has served as minister of both the Education and the Interior Ministry and was also once a close advisor and ally to Netanyahu, and the second-most-popular official in the Likud party.
Last December, Sa’ar resigned from Likud, resigned from the Knesset, formed his own party – New Hope – and vowed never to serve in a coalition with Netanyahu, so angered is he by what he calls Bibi’s corruption, bad leadership and mismanagement.
True, Sa’ar only has between 12 and 16 seats.
The latest poll puts New Hope at 13 seats.
Nevertheless, Sa’ar has goodwill among most of the leaders of the other parties and because so many members of Knesset want to move along to a “post-Bibi era,” there is certainly a scenario in which Sa’ar is given a shot at forming a government.
The most left of the left-wing parties – notably Labor and Meretz – might not like the policies of New Hope. But they may join the government just to get rid of Bibi.
Or they have the option of supporting Sa’ar to be the prime minister “from the outside.” That is, on day one of the next Knesset session they could vote for Sa’ar to be prime minister, but they would not actually join the government in order to maintain their left-wing principles.
There is another scenario, too.
If Bennett and his Yamina party were to surge ahead of New Hope on election day, then theoretically Bennett could be given the opportunity to form the next government instead of Sa’ar.
All that said, I’ll repeat what I’ve been saying for months: Bibi is a shrewd and experienced political cat. It’s way too soon to count him out.
But for now: his path back to Balfour Street (the prime minister’s residence) looks narrow indeed.
Path For Netanyahu
· Likud – 28 seats
· Shas (ultra-Orthodox) – 8
· United Torah Judaism (ultra-Orthodox) – 7
· Religious Zionism – 4
· Total: 47 seats
· Needed: At least 61 seats
Path For Gideon Sa’ar or Naftali Bennett
· New Hope (Sa’ar) – 13 seats
· Yamina (Bennett) – 11
· Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid) – 18
· Yisrael Beytenu (Avigdor Liberman) – 7
· Labor (Merav Michaeli) – 6
· Blue & White (Benny Gantz) – 5
· Meretz (TK) – 4
· Total: 64
· Needed: At least 61 seats
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.