The Times of Israel pollIn head-to-head, Netanyahu still slightly ahead of Gantz

Indictment announcement an election game changer, ToI poll shows

On eve of attorney general’s decision, survey shows Netanyahu at risk of losing both sizable support and, crucially, the ability to form a coalition

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right. (Gili Yaari, Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right. (Gili Yaari, Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A decision by the attorney general to press charges, pending a hearing, in the criminal investigations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could have a game-changing impact on the April 9 elections, a new Times of Israel poll shows. The ruling Likud party would lose both a significant chunk of support, as well as its ability to form a coalition after the vote, the survey, published overnight Wednesday-Thursday, finds.

According to the poll (the full results are here), conducted exclusively for The Times of Israel, Netanyahu’s Likud would lose four projected Knesset seats in the April election if Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his intention to press charges against him, a move widely expected to happen Thursday.

More significantly, due to voters defecting from Likud as well as a slight change in voter preferences among smaller parties leading to three of them dropping below the threshold, the newly formed Blue and White party could see a major jump in its Knesset seats, taking it well ahead of all other parties and placing it in a strong position to form a coalition. (The three parties that would fall below the 3.25% Knesset threshold in the shift prompted by an indictment decision are Shas, Yisrael Beytenu and Ra’am-Balad. Their votes would then be redistributed among parties that do clear the threshold. Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher party fails to make the Knesset, the poll shows, whether or not Mandelblit decides to indict Netanyahu.)

Conducted this week by polling firm Number 10 Strategies, the survey shows that the Likud would drop from a predicted 29 seats if charges are not announced in any of the corruption cases against Netanyahu, to 25 seats if charges are announced, pending a hearing. Over a quarter (28%) of those planning to vote for Likud said that they do not intend to vote for the party if the attorney general announces his intention to indict the prime minister.

The Benny Gantz-Yair Lapid alliance Blue and White, on the other hand, would rise dramatically, from 36 to 44 seats, if Mandelblit announces his intention to indict.

The poll shows that Blue and White would win more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud whether or not Mandelblit announces his intention to indict the prime minister, but only if he is facing criminal charges would Netanyahu’s right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc fail to muster the 61 or more seats in the 120-member Knesset needed to form a majority coalition.

Times of Israel – Number 10 Strategies poll showing current voting intentions, February 27, 2019

With no indictment announcement, Likud and its likely partners would receive 61 seats, a paper-thin majority in the 120-seat Knesset but enough to form a government. If Mandelblit does announce his intention to press charges, however, the same parties would receive just 55 in total.

Blue and White was formed last week, when Israel Resilience and Yesh Atid agreed to run on a joint slate along with Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party and Gabi Ashkenazi, who like Gantz and Ya’alon is a former military chief. It has performed strongly in polls since then, and The Times of Israel results show that even without an indictment announcement against Netanyahu, it would widen its lead over Likud, scoring 36 to the ruling party’s 29 Knesset seats.

Still, in that scenario, Blue and White would not be able to build a coalition of 61 or more seats. After an indictment announcement, however, Blue and White could succeed in forming a coalition with the support of Labor and two of either Meretz, Kulanu, Yisrael Beytenu or the ultra-Orthodox parties, the poll shows.

Mandelblit has refused demands by Netanyahu’s lawyers that an announcement on whether he intends to indict Netanyahu wait until after the April vote. According to multiple reports, he will announce his intention to indict the prime minister, subject to a hearing, in two and maybe all three of the cases against the prime minister on Thursday. The hearing process would take place after the elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on February 2, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In lieu of indictment announcements, the Labor Party would be joint third place with eight seats — a slight drop from the bump it saw in polls after its primary earlier this month, and a historic low for the former powerhouse in Israeli politics which currently holds 19 seats. Notably, in the post-indictment scenario, Labor is the only party other than the Likud (and the three parties which drop below the threshold altogether) not to see an increase at all in the poll.

Joint with Labor on eight seats, before charges, is the New Right, which was founded at the beginning of the election cycle by breakaway Jewish Home ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked. After a decision to press charges, the New Right would jump to 10 seats.

Following Labor and New Right, in the first scenario, come the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party and the Hadash-Ta’al union of two Arab-Israeli parties, on seven seats. Both would be bumped to eight after an indictment announcement.

The United Right-Wing Parties, a recent merger of the religious-Zionist Jewish Home and National Union parties along with the extremist Otzma Yehudit, scores five seats before an indictment, going up to six after an announcement.

In the pre-indictment scenario, a total of five parties hover dangerously close to the 3.25% electoral threshold for entry into the Knesset. According to the results, Meretz, Kulanu, Yisrael Beytenu, Shas and Ra’am-Balad, a second union of two Arab-Israeli parties, all scored just enough to gain four seats, the lowest possible amount.

Times of Israel – Number 10 Strategies poll, showing current voting intentions (in dark blue), and voting intentions if the attorney general announces his intention to indict Benjamin Netanyahu pending a hearing (light blue), February 27, 2019. Note that Yisrael Beytenu, Shas and Ra’am-Balad slip below the electoral threshold in the second scenario.

It is these vulnerable parties that could be hit hardest by an indictment announcement and in turn have a sizable affect on the overall results.

According to the poll, a small percentage of Shas, Yisrael Beytenu and Ra’am-Balad voters will move to Blue and White in order to bolster Likud’s challenger in light of charges against Netanyahu. But if, as predicted, that small shift is enough to push them below the threshold, the re-calibration of votes will result in a significant boost for Blue and White.

With 12 seats to be distributed between the remaining parties, Blue and White could gain an extra four, on top of the four it already took from the Likud. So, with Likud losing four seats and Blue and White gaining eight, the gap between the two would grow from seven to 19, with Blue and White on 44 seats and Likud on 29.

Regardless of the Knesset seat allocation, which could change significantly based on whether the small parties pass the threshold or not, Likud registers a drop in support from 19% before an indictment announcement to 15% after, while Blue and White sees an increase from 23% to 26%.

While polls are an almost daily occurrence in Israel in the months leading up to elections and are not seen as overly reliable, taken together the surveys can often serve as a general gauge of the political climate and where the vote may be headed.

Several specific questions posed to respondents in The Times of Israel poll regarding the investigations also spelled bad news for Netanyahu.

Just 35% of respondents, for example, said they agree with the statement: “The investigations into Benjamin Netanyahu are petty and politically motivated. They know he will win the election, so are trying to find other ways to get him out of office.”

By contrast, 47% said they agreed with a second statement, to the effect that the probes are “extremely serious and should not be taken lightly,” and that if Netanyahu is indicted, “he should immediately step down.”

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the Knesset on October 15, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

For Likud voters, 81% said they agreed more with the first statement, while 10% said the second better represented their views.

Asked if they believed that after a decade in power, Netanyahu should continue in the top job, 19% of respondents said they were happy with his leadership and wanted him to continue. Twenty-six percent said they believed it was “time for a change” but couldn’t see a viable alternative, while 55% said the prime minister should go.

Strikingly, while 56% of Likud voters said they were happy with Netanyahu, 44% said they would back his ouster if there were an alternative they supported.

In a head-on-head race with Benny Gantz, however, Netanyahu still edged first place, scoring 41% to the former IDF chief of staff’s 39%.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in all three cases against him, and has alleged that the investigations against him are a “witch hunt” involving the left, the media and the police, relentlessly pressuring a “weak” attorney general.

The survey was conducted via online panels between February 24 and 27, 2019, among a representative sample of 708 likely voters in the upcoming Knesset elections. Respondents who indicated that they were unsure or less likely to vote were not included in the sample. 18% of respondents were Arabic speakers surveyed in Arabic. The findings are rounded to the nearest whole digit. The margin of error is +/-3.7% with a 95% confidence level.

The survey was formulated by The Times of Israel and Simon Davies, a partner in the political consultancy, Number 10 Strategies.

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