Despite Netanyahu's Fears, Latest Poll Shows Likud Gaining Strength

Poll: If elections held today, Likud would win 36 seats, Kadima captures 27 seats, while Labor garners 12.

Despite Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu's concern about the right-wing character of the party's Knesset candidates selected early on Tuesday, a Haaretz-Dialog poll shows Likud to be gaining strength among voters.

The poll, conducted on Tuesday under the supervision of Tel Aviv University statistics professor Camil Fuchs, found that if the general election were held today, Likud would win 36 seats, Kadima would place second with 27 seats, and Labor would trail behind with 12.

Further analysis indicates Likud winning two seats from right-wing parties (one from Shas and one from Yisrael Beiteinu) and Labor winning one from Meretz-Yahad and one from Kadima. Meretz-Yahad fell to six seats from seven in the previous poll.

Previous polls ordered by Netanyahu showed that the list's inclusion of Moshe Feiglin, the leader of a right-wing faction within Likud, was liable to cost the party four or five seats. But the Haaretz-Dialog poll does not back that up.

Instead, it appears that what has come to be known as the Feiglin effect has yet to make its way into the voters' consciousness, though that could change over the coming days. The poll found that the composition of the Likud list has not made a major difference in the way voters say they plan to vote, although 27 percent of respondents said they thought Feiglin's selection would cause the party to lose seats, compared with the 20 percent who said it would gain Likud more voters.

Tuesday's poll is consistent with previous polls giving right-wing parties a total of 64 seats, compared with 56 for the center-left parties.

The Likud list for the 18th Knesset was announced early Tuesday at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds, after a tense day. Feiglin received most of the attention after he won the 20th spot on Likud's list despite Netanyahu's attempt to marginalize him.

The top spot went to Likud faction whip Gideon Sa'ar, who was followed by Gilad Erdan, Reuven Rivlin, Benny Begin, Moshe Kahlon, Silvan Shalom, Moshe Ya'alon, Yuval Steinitz and Lea Nass. Some of Netanyahu's favorites, like Assaf Hefetz and Uzi Dayan, were too far down on the roster to expect to get into the Knesset. Dan Meridor got slot No. 17, but Netanyahu said last night that although he didn't win a top spot, he would be appointed to a key cabinet portfolio in a Netanyahu government.

Netanyahu and his close aides were concerned last night that the preponderance of right-wing candidates could deter potential voters from choosing Likud in the general election, giving Kadima the votes it might otherwise have received.

"We're praying that this list won't kill the elections for us," one of Netanyahu's aides said. "This group won't allow us to advance political developments, whether regarding the Palestinians or the Syrians."

The Likud list selected in the primary was a kind of slap in Netanyahu's face. For weeks he exerted a lot of effort in attempting to form a centrist list filled with moderates, recruiting Dayan and Hefetz even though he knows Likud is not their party. But it didn't help - Netanyahu's picks are out of the picture.

Instead, the Likud members considered the party rebels, a term dating from their opposition to the 2005 disengagement plan during the Sharon government, are making a comeback. These include Nass, Gila Gamliel, Ehud Yatom and Michael Ratzon. It turns out that unlike generals, longtime party rebels neither die nor fade away - they always come back.

In addition to fighting Feiglin - and the party chairman did manage to get him off the top 10, even though he didn't succeed in kicking him off the list - Netanyahu succumbed to the temptation to open a second front, against Silvan Shalom, so that he would not be the No. 2 figure on the list.

Netanyahu won that battle; Shalom got sixth place (seventh after Netanyahu). But Netanyahu was not the only one responsible for that victory. He can thank Feiglin, who did not include Shalom on his list of recommended candidates, because Shalom supported the disengagement and helped Ariel Sharon market it around the world.

After the results came through, Netanyahu called Shalom to invite him to the Likud ceremony announcing the Knesset list. "You destroyed me and now you want me to come?" said Shalom.

"Drop it, Silvan," Netanyahu said. "In all government matters, placement doesn't determine anything."

Netanyahu's campaign against Feiglin ended up making the right-wing leader a star. Tuesday night's news broadcasts made it seem like Feiglin had been chosen to fill the No. 2 spot rather than No. 20 and that he would be replacing Netanyahu as chairman any minute. That's not the situation, of course, but in the world of Israeli politics, it's the image that counts.