Analysis

Netanyahu’s Dilemma: If He Pulls Even With Gantz, He May Not Be the Next Prime Minister

Tying Knesset seats with Gantz’s Kahol Lavan could come at the expense of Netanyahu's natural coalition partners on the right

File photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, March 3, 2019.
Ronen Zvulun/AP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can be pleased with the opinion polls over the weekend, which show his Likud party retaining a similar number of seats in the run-up to the April 9 Knesset election as the polls projected the weekend before. But it’s worth considering the following:

1. It’s hard to imagine that some of the recent polling results could be greeted warmly by both Netanyahu and his main contender, Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, but that’s the sense from polls by the major television channels in the wake of Thursday’s announcement by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit that he intends to indict the prime minister, subject to a pre-indictment hearing.

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Ostensibly, it’s Gantz who should be most pleased. Instant polls conducted after his Hosen L’Yisrael party and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid announced that they had formed their joint Kahol Lavan slate gave the slate 35 to 36 Knesset seats, significantly more than Likud. Yet Gantz may be benefitting from a temporary surge following the excitement over the new joint slate and we also need to recognize the problematic nature of results of some of the hastily conducted polling.

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And when one adds to that the vague account about an alleged act of sexual impropriety on Gantz’s part when he was a teenager — which he denies — one can understand why Gantz’s campaign would be pleased if his slate’s projected haul of Knesset seats has remained stable or has even increased a bit. And in the wake of the draft indictment of Netanyahu, with the polls currently show it would likely be impossible for Netanyahu to form a majority coalition, Gantz should be all the more pleased.

Yet it’s Netanyahu who is smiling, even though weekend polls project that a coalition of his Likud and the other parties that would be part of his next government lack a majority. True, that’s a dangerous situation for him to be in, but ultimately, Likud is still projected to get 29 or 30 seats, similar numbers to last week, and the right-wing bloc as a whole has only lost a seat or two.

Fears of a doomsday scenario following the announcement of Mendelblit’s draft indictment — with an anticipated loss of five seats (as Likud predicted) or double that (as the opposition predicted) — turned out to be baseless. Only a small percentage of voters shifted their support from Likud to other parties (and just a few percent shifted to the center-left bloc). And even if it was more than that, others shifted back to Netanyahu’s Likud instead of supporting the small right-wing parties.

As with the formation of Kahol Lavan, the most significant response on the voters’ part to the draft indictment will be seen right away. The further we get from it, the more that the rather minor harm it caused with heal itself.

That is, assuming that damning evidence against the prime minister is not leaked. On the other hand, even if the immediate damage is repaired, we’ll go back to the difficult situation into which the polls had place Netanyahu last week, which isn’t a source of great pleasure for him either.

2. The most dramatic result of the polls, as on-air commentators noted, is the shift in the strength of the party blocs: from a slight 61 to 59 advantage for the right-wing to an identical lead at the moment for the left. Commentators have conceded that the change is of limited importance: an anti-Netanyahu bloc of such a scope does not portend a Gantz-led government at this point. But the shift was mainly the result of smaller right-wing parties dropping below the 3.25 percent threshold, although some of them are close to it.

And just one small polling error with the blocs neck-and-neck could scramble the deck. We shouldn’t jump to conclusions from a single weekend of such close results.

It’s particularly ironic that Avigdor Lieberman, who pushed through the higher electoral threshold with the nearly acknowledged goal of keeping the Arab-majority parties out of the Knesset, might find his own party as its main victim. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu doesn’t make it above the threshold in any of the weekend polls. It is polling at 2 percent of the vote. Its support has apparently gone to Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, which rallied a bit, and perhaps also to the party of an accused (or persecuted) prime minister, in his hour of need. Likud suffered a slight decline, meaning that a small slice of its support went to Gantz’s Kahol Lavan and Kulanu.

At around the 2 percent level of support along with Lieberman is Orli Levi-Abekasis of Gesher party, who began the current Knesset term as a member of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu and then split off as an independent. When she first announced she would be running on her own in the upcoming election, polls initially predicted that she would garner seven or eight seats. But the current focus on Netanyahu and Gantz has left her out in the cold.

The next week or two will be critical for Levi-Abekasis and Lieberman. At the moment, she doesn’t have enough votes to push her over the electoral threshold, but her Gesher party is running at between 2.5 and 3 percent according to the polls, which puts her relatively close to the 3.25 percent that she would need for representation. Yisrael Beiteinu is trailing her slightly.

History has demonstrated that once people repeatedly see that polling results show a party falling under the threshold, as the election approaches, they become less loyal to such small parties. They prefer to go for a party for which a vote will count. In the 2013 Knesset election, the Am Shalem party suffered such a sorry fate and the Green party had the same thing happen in 2009. By Election Day they were forgotten. The outcome in this regard is critical on April 9 for Levi-Abekasis and LIeberman and also for Netanyahu and Gantz, when it comes to their potential coalition partners.

File photo: Avigdor Lieberman speaks at the Yisrael Beiteinu campaign launch, Tel Aviv, January 20, 2019.
Ofer Vaknin

3. Lieberman’s situation also symbolizes Netanyahu’s difficulty in developing a strategy that will have him pull ahead. If Netanyahu wishes to close the growing gap with Gantz – who, if he maintains his strength will be able to provide grounds for Kahlon or the ultra-Orthodox parties to move over to his bloc, on the argument that the people have spoken – the prime minister should seek to pick up additional seats without reducing the right-wing bloc as a whole. Unfortunately, for him, however, the weekend polls show that these two goals might be mutually exclusive.

Those polls show Netanyahu’s coalition partners getting between zero and seven seats, meaning that they don’t have votes to spare that might shift to Likud without endangering their own futures. That could leave Netanyahu facing a devastating dilemma: If he refrains from wooing voters supporting his coalition partners, he might have fewer seats than Kahol Lavan and that might cause his partners to wonder whether they should remain permanently wedded to Likud.

If Netanyahu manages to raise Likud’s result to around the 36 or 37 that Gantz’s Kahol Lavan is currently drawing, it means that almost necessarily one of Likud’s smaller coalition partners would disappear and the right-wing bloc would lose its majority. Of course, that could also happen on the other side of the spectrum too.

If Gantz continues to increase his strength, it could put the smaller left-wing parties at risk and harm Gantz’s chances that he would have a bloc of support that would make it impossible for Netanyahu to form a government. That’s why both Kahol Lavan and Likud, the two large parties in the polls, will focus on attacking one another. If they don’t want to hurt their own blocs, the only votes they would want to court would be from their rival large party.