Hours to Deadline, Kahol Lavan Surges in Election Poll as Gantz, Netanyahu Trade Barbs

Despite leaders' statements on last-minute efforts to form a unity government and end political deadlock, lawmakers already tabled a bill to dissolve parliament

Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz.
AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

As Israeli politicians face a Wednesday midnight deadline to prevent a third election cycle within a year, a public opinion poll published Tuesday gives Benny Gantz and his Kahol Lavan party a significant lead over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud.

According to the Channel 13 News poll, Kahol Lavan would get 37 out 120 Knesset seats in a potential election, while Likud is predicted 33, possibly allowing Gantz to form a narrow coalition with other center-left parties and Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu.

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Kahol Lavan, Labor-Gesher, the Democratic Union and Yisrael Beiteinu are predicted 55 seats together. Though short of a clear majority, the right-wing bloc would get, according to the poll, only 52 seats. The four-party Arab alliance of the Joint List, predicted to keep its power with 13 seats, might not support a Gantz-led government, but isn't expected to vote against its formation.

Lawmakers have until Wednesday at midnight to nominate an alternative candidate to Netanyahu and Gantz after two failed rounds of unity talks, and there have been no signs that such a solution will be reached.

Kahol Lavan and Likud lawmakers submitted Tuesday afternoon a bill to dissolve the Knesset and hold another election on March 2. The first vote is scheduled for noon Wednesday and the final vote close to midnight. Each vote must garner a majority of 61 MKs to pass.

If the bill does not pass three readings by the end of Wednesday, the Knesset will automatically dissolve and an election will be held no earlier than March 10.

Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon said this week that after the expected dissolution of the Knesset on Wednesday, the date of the election cannot be changed, nor can the method of election or the voter threshold. His statement is expected to abort a proposal by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold a direct election for prime minister in which voters are asked to choose between him and Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz as premier, instead of voting for the entire Knesset.

In political circles it is believed that the chance of forming a government is now slim. With only hours left before the Knesset is dissolved, Netanyahu and Gantz have increased their public calls for the other to join a unity government.

Addressing Netanyahu, Gantz said: “As you promised before the previous election, do not hide behind parliamentary immunity, and go defend your innocence in court…you have the full right to defend yourself but you must not make the Knesset a city of refuge.” Gantz added that he and his party colleagues were continuing to do everything possible to form a government with Likud.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, responded to Gantz’s call by saying: “After 80 days, it is time that for one day, for the benefit of the citizens of the State of Israel, we sit down and seriously discuss the establishment of a broad unity government. It’s not too late yet.”

Gideon Sa'ar, Netanyahu's rival in Likud, meanwhile said that the premier won't be able to form a governing coalition even if anotther election is held. 

If the Knesset dissolves, the Central Election Committee will have to move quickly to complete all the technical matters required ahead of Election Day. Meanwhile, the parties that hold primaries will have to decide over the next few days whether to have their leaders run again and who will appear on their party roster.

On Monday, the Likud Central Committee voted to freeze the current Likud roster, and in the coming weeks to hold elections for the party leadership. Until the election there may be unifications and splits of existing rosters, and new figures may enter the fray.

Another bill that will come to a vote on Wednesday would grant the chairman of the Central Election Committee the authority to issue special instructions to maintain order at polling stations. A similar clause in the previous law allowed the last chairman, Justice Hanan Melcer, to hire thousands of volunteers with body cameras to be present at polling stations to thwart attempts at fraud.

Last-ditch efforts between Kahol Lavan and Likud to form a unity government and avert another election ended last week without a deal.

On Monday, Kahol Lavan co-leader Yair Lapid said he would forgo his demand to be prime minister in a rotation agreement with Gantz, while Gantz said he was willing to negotiate with Netanyahu if the prime minister vows to not to pursue legislation to grand him from standing trial in the three corruption cases in which he has been indicted.

Shortly after, Netanyahu addressed Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, urging him to "quickly negotiate in the remaining 48 hours in order to establish a strong national government," and accused Gantz and Lapid of refusing to reach an agreement.  

On Tuesday, Yisrael Beitenu Chairman Avigdor Lieberman said that he has recently come under "a campaign of pressure and enticement" to join a narrow coalition government. "We have been offered every possible position in the cabinet and the Knesset, all just to join," Lieberman wrote on Facebook, adding that he categorically rejected all offers