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As Knesset dissolves, Likud leads in polls but no clear majority for Netanyahu

Sa’ar’s New Hope predicted to be 2nd largest party; Blue and White slips to 5-6 seats; plurality blame PM for new vote; Netanyahu, Gantz trade blame again for coalition’s collapse

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar, right. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Likud MK Gideon Sa'ar, right. (Flash90)

A pair of television polls aired Tuesday evening put Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and religious parties short of a majority, but also predicted that his rivals would have had a hard time building a viable coalition.

The polls were published shortly before the Knesset dissolved at midnight Tuesday, with the expiration of a deadline for the 2020 state budget, triggering the fourth national election in two years.

One of the surveys also had former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar nipping at Netanyahu’s heels in terms of the candidate deemed best-suited to be the prime minister.

The surveys came hours before the midnight deadline to pass a state budget expired, automatically prompting Israel’s fourth elections in two years next March, and as Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz exchanged recriminations over who was to blame for the political crisis.

In both the Channel 12 and Kan polls, Netanyahu’s Likud party was forecast to be the largest faction in the next election, set for March 23, 20121, with 29 and 28 seats respectively, down from 36 in the current Knesset.

Following Likud was Sa’ar’s New Hope party, which Kan said would get 20 seats, while Channel 12’s poll gave it 18 seats.

Sa’ar formed New Hope earlier this month after announcing he was leaving Likud to challenge Netanyahu.

Gideon Sa’ar visits Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, on December 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The third-largest party would be Opposition Leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid-Telem with 16 seats, according to Channel 12, though Kan predicted it would be the national-religious Yamina faction with 15 seats. Yesh Atid received 13 seats in the Kan survey, while Channel 12 gave 13 seats to Naftali Bennett’s Yamina.

Both networks said the predominantly-Arab Joint List would get 11 seats, down from the 15 it now has, and that the ultra-Orthodox Shas party would get eight seats, one less than it currently holds. United Torah Judaism, another ultra-Orthodox party, received eight seats from Channel 12 and seven from Kan.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the Knesset on December 1, 2020. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90)

The Channel 12 poll gave seven seats to the right-wing secularist Yisrael Beytenu and five to the left-wing Meretz party. In the Kan poll, both parties got six seats, as did Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, which rounded out the Channel 12 survey with five seats, just above the minimum threshold needed to enter the Knesset. Blue and White won 33 seats in March 2020’s elections.

If Yamina, which was left out of the unity government Likud formed with Blue and White in May, were to rejoin Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing religious parties, which also includes Shas and UTJ, both polls said they would together have 58 seats, still short of the majority needed to form a coalition in the 120-seat Knesset.

Though Netanyahu lacked a clear path to forming a government, it was unclear from the survey results if an alternative coalition could be assembled, with the parties opposing the Likud leader divided ideologically and over the question of who should be premier. New Hope, Yamina, Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beytenu and Blue and White would win 60 seats between them, according to the Kan poll, and 59 according to Channel 12.

Asked who was best suited to be prime minister, 33 percent of respondents to the Channel 12 survey said Netanyahu, 16% Sa’ar, 12% Lapid, 8% Bennett and 4% Gantz.

The Kan poll included head-to-head matchups on the question of who is better suited to be prime minister. When paired with Sa’ar, 39% of respondents said Netanyahu was a better choice for prime minister, versus 36% who said the New Hope chief.

Netanyahu also received 39% backing when squared off with Bennett, whom 26% of respondents said was more fitting to be premier.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett at a protest against the state’s intention to close the Hilla Project, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on August 12, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Asked who was to blame for new elections, 43% of respondents to the Kan poll said Netanyahu and 18% blamed Gantz. In the Channel 12 survey, 38% said Netanyahu was to blame and 20% said Gantz, while another 28% blamed them both equally.

The Channel 12 survey was conducted by pollster Manu Geva and included 575 respondents, with a 4.2% margin of error.

Kan didn’t provide information on the number of respondents or margin of error.

As the polls were broadcast on Israel’s primetime nightly news programs, Netanyahu gave a speech at the Knesset blaming Gantz for the new elections, the fourth in under two years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I didn’t want elections. We voted time after time against elections, including yesterday. Unfortunately, Gantz went back on the agreements between us,” Netanyahu claimed.

Nevertheless, “if they force elections on us, I promise that we’ll win,” the prime minister said.

Blue and White quickly hit back, saying it was Netanyahu who was to blame.

“A criminal defendant with three indictments is dragging the country to a fourth election campaign,” the party wrote on its Twitter account, referring to Netanyahu’s trial on graft charges. “If there was no trial, there would be a budget and no elections.”

The finger-pointing came shortly ahead of the midnight deadline for the Knesset to pass the 2020 state budget or dissolve, and as the options for averting elections ran out. In an overnight vote early on Tuesday, the Knesset narrowly rejected a bill to briefly delay the 2020 state budget deadline.

Under the power-sharing deal between Likud and Blue and White, a failure to pass a budget was the lone visible loophole that would enable Netanyahu to avoid having to give up the premiership to Gantz in November 2021. Likud has been holding up the budget for months in an effort to renegotiate a more favorable coalition agreement.

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