Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed Wednesday that his Likud party was in talks with several members of the rival right-wing New Hope and Yamina parties, seeking to have them defect and join his bloc of supporters after next week’s Knesset election and hand him a parliamentary majority.
The remark was promptly slammed by New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar, who said the premier was “lying as usual.”
Netanyahu has in the past managed to recruit defectors from rival parties, but not after speaking about the possibility publicly beforehand. Netanyahu has sought to pry voters whose primary concern is ousting him away from New Hope and Yamina and push them toward Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who is seen as a more comfortable rival for the premier.
Speaking Wednesday with Channel 12 news, Netanyahu was asked about a poll published the previous evening that showed him a couple of Knesset seats short of a viable coalition. While expressing confidence that he will eventually muster the majority and again vowing he won’t rely on the Islamist Ra’am party, he hinted he could get the missing numbers from the ranks of his rivals.
“We have received preliminary inquiries from lawmakers with Bennett and Gideon [Sa’ar],” Netanyahu said, adding that those candidates would be uncomfortable with forming a government with Lapid, possibly including a power-sharing premiership.
Sa’ar, a senior Likud figure for some two decades who had been sidelined by Netanyahu, quit the party last year and formed New Hope as a right-wing challenger to the premier’s rule. He has vowed not to serve in a government headed by Netanyahu.
Naftali Bennett’s Yamina was also shunned by Netanyahu last year, which left his religious right-wing party outside the power-sharing government with Benny Gantz. Despite their rough relationship over the years, Bennett has not ruled out collaborating with Netanyahu in the next government, though he could also choose to go with the bloc opposing him.
Sa’ar reacted by tweeting: “Netanyahu, as usual, is lying and deploying spin about contacts and defectors. He knows New Hope won’t let him form a new government and is trying to sow despair among a big right-wing public that believes in hope and wants to replace him.”
Also during the interview, Netanyahu falsely insisted that the national deficit was no more than several dozen billion shekels, while the Finance Ministry said in an official report this month that the estimated deficit in 2020 was NIS 160.3 billion ($48.8 billion), and from March 2020 to February 2021 it was NIS 173.9 billion ($52.9 billion).
Finance Minister Israel Katz corrected Netanyahu in an interview with Radio 103FM, reiterating that the 2020 deficit was some NIS 160 billion.
The Channel 12 poll showed Likud enjoying a boost in support ahead of the March 23 vote, but predicted an outcome in which neither the premier nor his political rivals have a clear path to forming a government. A separate poll by the Kan public broadcaster, however, gave Netanyahu a possible 62-strong bloc, if he can persuade Bennett to join him in a coalition.
Asked who was best suited to be prime minister, 37 percent of respondents said Netanyahu, 21% Lapid, 10% Bennett and 9% Sa’ar.
The final surveys are set to be released Friday, after which new polls are barred from being released under Israeli election laws.
While horse-race polls are an almost daily occurrence in Israel in the weeks 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.
Previous surveys have also generally predicted political deadlock after the election, with no party having a clear path to assembling a majority coalition.
The upcoming elections — the fourth in two years — were called after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline.
The election, following the three previous ones, is largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s rule amid his ongoing trial on corruption charges, as well as his government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.