Netanyahu's Party Surprised by Polls Showing Coronavirus Response Has Hurt Him

As the opposition right-wing Yamina party continues to rise in polls, Netanyahu has changed his media tactics while Gantz's party has three battles planned for the near future

Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson
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Netanyahu in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, September 2020
Netanyahu in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, September 2020Credit: POOL / Reuters
Chaim Levinson
Chaim Levinson

The gap between Likud and the opposition right-wing Yamina party is narrowing, according to recent polls. The trend is said to have surprised Likud leaders, who believe that a smart campaign will keep Yamina and its chairman, lawmaker Naftali Bennett, at bay, but they understand that the coronavirus crisis has hurt Likud.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided two weeks ago to change his media tactics. After a month of riding the wave of the historic Abraham Agreements with the United Arab Emirates, during the past two weeks he has hardly mentioned them. The issue of his impending bribery trial has also been pushed aside.

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Netanyahu is posting clips and briefings at campaign speed, including a 15-minute coronavirus test, and on Wednesday, a Zoom meeting with the heads of local councils about the need to involve them in epidemiological investigations, which he has already done in any case.

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel at a cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, March 10, 2019Credit: Mark Israel Salam

Netanyahu’s close advisers are trying to find a gimmick for him to distract public opinion. Some are pushing him to fire Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel for violating the lockdown. Netanyahu is reportedly waiting for further information about the extent to which she allegedly misled Health Ministry epidemiological investigators about her whereabouts, before he makes his decision.

Netanyahu’s more optimistic advisers are saying Bennett’s rise is actually a good thing. They figure he will siphon off votes from the soft right that had migrated to the centrist Kahol Lavan, Likud will eventually snatch its voters from Bennett, and the right-wing bloc will rise to 70 Knesset seats and establish a strong coalition. But even the optimists admit that without restoring faith in the management of the pandemic, there is no answer to Bennett’s appeal.

Kahol Lavan, for its part, is continuing its approach of facing off against Netanyahu to satisfy its voters. An election would be very bad for Kahol Lavan at this point. But the consensus in the party is that Netanyahu wouldn’t dare go to an election in this predicament, and therefore now is the time to apply pressure.

Kahol Lavan is planning three battles in the near future. One is over the appointment of the state prosecutor, which Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn is expected to move ahead on soon. The second is over extending the state of emergency that has allowed authorities to bar protesters from traveling more than one kilometer from their homes to demonstrate. Next week the party is expected to cite the falling infection rates as a reason to curtail the state of emergency, which would allow a return to protests near the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence, on condition that social distancing and capsules are maintained.

The third expected clash is over the budget. Kahol Lavan wants a two-year budget to be passed in December, otherwise they will call for an election. To this Likud responded: “The prime minster has presented more successful budgets that any other world leader. He isn’t bothered by Kahol Lavan’s shameful attempt to extricate themselves from their collapse in the polls. It’s disgraceful that Kahol Lavan is threatening an election in the midst of the coronavirus crisis because of one fake poll. Three surveys in the past 24 hours show that Likud is maintaining its strength. Meanwhile, Kahol Lavan is crashing.”

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn at the Knesset, Jerusalem, September 2020Credit: Yehonatan Samiya / Knesset Spokesperson

The political world is acting as if an election in March is inevitable, although the coalition has no real interest now in an election. The elections in the United States in less than four weeks will be an important milestone. An upset win by Trump could help Netanyahu change the subject and whet his party’s appetite for an election. A likelier, sweeping victory by Joe Biden could shake up Israel’s government with unforeseen consequences.