Naftali bennett has spent most of his political career in benjamin netanyahus shadow, first as the prime ministers chief-of-staff and then propping up his coalition governments.

Now, as a strict lockdown aimed at combating a surge in coronavirus infections confines israelis to their homes and cripples the economy, the prime ministers rightwing protg senses his opportunity.

The 48-year-old tech entrepreneur-turned-politician has spent months hammering mr netanyahu for failing to properly control the virus, painting the likud party leader as incompetent and uninterested.

It has worked so far. opinion polls show that mr bennetts yamina party, which has traditionally appealed to settlers in the occupied west bank, would win more than 20 mps in the 120-seat knesset, up from six in april.

The rise in support for mr bennett comes as a confluence of national and political crises have damaged the veteran prime minister.

Fewer than a third of israelis trust mr netanyahus handling of the crisis, a poll from the israel democracy institute found, while his hastily cobbled together corona coalition is seen as unlikely to endure, with many expecting another election early next year. a criminal trial on charges of corruption hangs over mr netanyahu,

This has created the opportunity for mr bennett to attempt what many have tried in the past: a move to unseat israels longest-serving premier.

He [mr bennett] got the benefit of the trend that whatever party is not in the coalition, it gets the runoff from the anger, said dahlia scheindlin, a veteran pollster. but are these new seats stable? of course theyre not.

Born to us immigrants who moved to israel after the 1967 arab-israeli war, mr bennetts relatively unblemished biography leaves little obvious grist for mr netanyahus well-oiled attack machinery.

Indeed, his life in many ways mirrors mr netanyahus: an elite upbringing, distinguished military service during israels occupation of south lebanon, followed by success in the private sector.

Unlike mr netanyahu, though, mr bennett is publicly religious: he wears a traditional jewish kipa skullcap, objects to gay marriage, frames israeli control of the west bank in biblical terms and is blunt about his opposition to a palestinian state.

Public sentiment leans in mr bennetts favour, with more than 70 per cent of israeli jews veering towards the right, albeit not as far right as him. so is his record in managing the first virus wave, when he was defence minister in a caretaker administration.

Israel coped well during the early days of the pandemic deploying the army, putting hundreds of thousands of people into quarantine and navigating a lockdown that brought infections down to fewer than 20 a day by mid-april.

But that was followed by what critics say was a reckless decision to reopen the economy in an effort to return to normal. as israelis emerged from the first lockdown, there was scant enforcement of mask-wearing and social-distancing guidelines, and little investment in hospital capacity or a track-and-trace programme for a second surge that has now arrived.

So, too, according to mr bennett, was mr netanyahus refusal to allow the military to lead the virus fight. the army is israels supreme emergency tool with less bureaucracy than the health ministry especially, mr bennett told the financial times. i asked the prime minister to transfer the entire responsibility of waging the war on covid-19 to the defence ministry and the israeli defence force, but bibi wouldnt do it.

The reason, mr bennett complained recently, was that mr netanyahu could not allow a rivals plan to work. hes scared of me and that i might succeed. its personal, and hundreds of thousands are suffering. and its unforgivable.

As he seeks to press home his advantage, mr bennett knows he must keep the focus on mr netanyahus perceived failures and narrow the political conversation to the virus and the economy. the latter has been devastated by two lockdowns and a haphazard patchwork of government measures that has done little to boost employment from historic lows.

But the polarisation in israeli politics means that while mr bennetts party is gaining at the expense of likud, the prime minister remains the leader of israels rightwing camp.

Analysts are also sceptical about whether the former defence minister can seriously threaten his former mentor. bennett has always done well in the polls and poorly in elections, said reuven hazan, a political science professor at the hebrew university in jerusalem. hes a challenger in the fictitious world of polls.

On other issues that appeal to israeli rightwingers, mr netanyahu has the edge. his alliance with donald trump, us president, has delivered a diplomatic victory in the form of peace treaties with the united arab emirates and bahrain, and a flickering green light to expand israels control of the west bank.

The prime ministers rightwing base has also been kept energised by well-timed vitriol directed at arab-israeli politicians, critical news outlets, dogged prosecutors and an independent judiciary.

Mr netanyahu is also a wily operator who has been here before: he successfully co-opted his most recent opponent, benny gantz, into a coalition government in order to neuter him. even with mr bennetts surge, likud is still 10 seats ahead of yamina.

Bibi appears to have staying power and a resilient core of voters, said ms scheindlin. to unseat israels veteran premier, she added, bennett is going to need more than a message of competence on coronavirus.