JERUSALEM -- 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.
"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.