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Amid election buzz, polls give Likud the most seats, with Yamina at its heels

Netanyahu’s party still in lead — and widening advantage, according to one survey — as Gantz indicates he’s holding out hope government can be saved and early elections avoided

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as then-defense minister Naftali Bennett and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri confer, during a meeting of right-wing party leaders at the Knesset following election day, on March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks as then-defense minister Naftali Bennett and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri confer, during a meeting of right-wing party leaders at the Knesset following election day, on March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

With the government appearing to teeter on the brink of collapse, a pair of polls published Tuesday night showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party remaining the largest in the Knesset, with one survey, however, giving his rivals a shot at forming a coalition without him.

A poll by the Kan broadcaster gave Likud 31 seats and Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina 21, followed by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid with 17. The predominantly Arab-Israeli Joint List got 11 seats; and Blue and White, headed by Benny Gantz, received nine seats. Also with nine seats are Shas and Yisrael Beytenu, while UTJ snagged seven and Meretz six.

A separate poll from Channel 13 showed a closer contest, with Netanyahu maintaining a 27-23 seat advantage over Bennett. The poll gave Yesh Atid 20 seats, the Joint List 11, and Blue and White 10. Yisrael Beytenu gained eight seats, Shas and UTJ seven and Meretz six.

The Labor party failed to clear the threshold to enter the Knesset in both polls.

The Channel 13 numbers showed that Bennett could potentially form a narrow right-center coalition with Yesh Atid, Blue and White and Yisrael Beytenu. In that long-shot instance, Bennett would likely be prime minister.

Jewish Home chair Naftali Bennett (L) speaks with Yesh Atid chair Yair Lapid in the Knesset plenum, March 11, 2014. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Some polls in past weeks have shown Bennett’s Yamina gaining on Netanyahu, who has seen his Likud party fall to as low as 23 seats.

In the Channel 13 poll, respondents were also asked who they saw as most fitting to serve as prime minister, with Netanyahu again coming out on top, with 32%, followed by Bennett with 21%, Lapid with 15% and Gantz with just 12%.

Asked about Netanyahu’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, 56% said they were not satisfied, 24% were fairly satisfied, and just 14% said they were satisfied overall.

Speculation of early elections has ramped up in recent days as the government has teetered amid a budget impasse. If the budget issue is not resolved by late December, early elections are likely to be called, the fourth in two years.

According to the Channel 13 poll, in the case of elections being called, 44% of the public would blame Netanyahu, 31% would put blame both Netanyahu and Gantz equally, while 16% would blame Gantz.

‘If there is a budget, there is a government’

In a series of interviews Tuesday night, Gantz refused to say if he would support a no-confidence motion next week to pull the plug on a government in which his strained ties with Netanyahu have increasingly come to the fore.

In a move aimed at pressuring the centrist Blue and White party to break ranks with the coalition amid an ongoing deterioration of relations within the government, opposition leader Yair Lapid said on Monday that he’ll again lead a proposal next week to disperse the Knesset and call new elections.

“The bill will come to a vote. It is time for elections,” Lapid said at the opening of his Yesh Atid party faction meeting at the Knesset. “Netanyahu wants elections in June so he’s playing for time. There is no reason to let him go to elections at the time that’s convenient for him.”

With both Blue and White and the opposition’s Yamina’s support, the no-confidence motion would pass, bringing down the government. Blue and White has previously opposed such a measure.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz, appearing on Channel 12, seemed to hold out hope that the government could begin to function more effectively, and stressed that he expected Netanyahu to honor their agreement and hand over the prime ministership to him a year from now.

“I am not giving up on the rotation [of the prime ministership] … it’s what the country needs,” he said. “We signed an agreement, we looked the public in the eye. If Netanyahu keeps agreements — there is a budget, there is a government, I will be prime minister.”

However, Gantz allowed that the government would collapse “if it looks like the budget won’t be passed by December 23.” In that case, he said, Netanyahu “would have to answer to the public.”

With just over a month remaining until the end of the year, the High Court of Justice instructed the government on Tuesday to explain why it has thus far failed to pass a budget for 2020. The court gave the government 21 days to explain the legality of an amendment to Israel’s Basic Law, passed by legislators in August, which allowed them to delay the passing of the budget until mid-December.

Under the coalition deal between the Likud party, led by Netanyahu, and Blue and White, the two agreed to pass a budget running through 2021. Netanyahu, however, is now insisting on separate budgets for 2020 and 2021, with a failure to pass a budget allowing him to avoid handing over the premiership to Gantz and instead go to elections.

Now, with Gantz having announced a government committee to investigate the so-called submarine affair that has ensnared several of Netanyahu’s allies, the coalition looks closer than ever to falling apart.

Speaking to Channel 13, Gantz denied that the timing of his decision to set up the submarine affair inquiry was politically motivated to pressure the prime minister. Rather, he claimed that there is “new information,” that has come to light regarding the affair, without offering details.

“I found findings that caught my attention and I thought it made sense to check how it was conducted,” he said.

The submarine affair, also known as Case 3000, revolves around allegations of a massive bribery scheme in the multi-billion-shekel state purchase of naval vessels from German shipbuilder Thyssenkrupp.

While several of Netanyahu’s close associates face charges in the case, which involves suspicions Israeli officials were bribed to push for the acquisitions of naval vessels and submarines from Thyssenkrupp, the prime minister has not been implicated and the attorney general has said he is not a suspect.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, then-IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, left, and then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon attend a ceremony marking the arrival of INS Tanin, a Dolphin AIP class submarine, to a naval base in the northern city of Haifa, September 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Amir Cohen, Pool)

Gantz’s move to set up the government commission of inquiry, which will operate under the auspices of the Defense Ministry, appeared to imperil the already dysfunctional unity government.

Gantz’s Blue and White party joined rival Likud to form a coalition in May, following three consecutive elections. Gantz said at the time that he was joining Netanyahu for the benefit of the country to tackle the coronavirus crisis.

But he told Channel 13 on Tuesday, “If Netanyahu continues to put his interests ahead of other interests, we will come to an election, and he will have to explain why there is no budget… I understand that his considerations are personal and not necessarily national.”

Frustrated by the deadlock in the government, Gantz last week said that he had instructed his party to gather together “all of the relevant bills that will advance equality, fight corruption and other values that are important to us.”

The move would potentially include putting forward legislation to limit the term of the prime minister or prevent a prime minister from serving under indictment — proposals that would likely have the backing of a majority of the Knesset if supported by Blue and White but would almost certainly result in the breakup of the coalition. Netanyahu is on trial for a series of corruption charges, which he denies.

Vowing on Tuesday to stand in the next election “as the head of Blue and White,” Gantz said he was “the only alternative leadership in Israel.”

Responding to Gantz’s interviews, Likud put out a statement slamming the Blue and White leader.

“It’s unfortunate that he’s hopping between TV studios for political interviews on a day that two IDF soldiers were killed in a bad accident,” it said, referring to a plane crash that killed an Air Force flight instructor and cadet on Tuesday morning.

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