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Elections 2021

Netanyahu confident mass vaccines will be shot in the arm needed to win election

Predicting up to 40 seats in vote, PM said to tell confidants that challenger Sa’ar is a ‘balloon that will burst’; efforts to recruit envoy to US Ron Dermer so far rebuffed

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after receiving the the first vaccination against the coroanvirus as part of a national inoculation program, at the Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, outside of Tel Aviv, on December 19, 2020. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after receiving the the first vaccination against the coroanvirus as part of a national inoculation program, at the Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, outside of Tel Aviv, on December 19, 2020. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to be confident that the country’s mass inoculation program against the coronavirus will give his Likud party an election-winning boost in the coming March vote, telling confidants that it will add more seats to Likud’s Knesset faction.

Visitors to Netanyahu’s office are regularly shown two colorful graphs he keeps in his desk, one showing the virus infection numbers, the other Likud’s ranking in opinion polls, according to a Wednesday report from Zman Yisrael, the Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site.

The graphs show that after the country came out of its first lockdown last spring, having successfully brought down daily infection numbers to low double digits, Likud was predicted in polls to win some 40 seats in the Knesset, up from the 36 it won in March 2020.

However, a rapid rollback of the lockdown restrictions was soon followed by a rise in virus infections leading to a second lockdown in September, and then, starting Sunday of this week, the country’s third lockdown, which is set to continue for at least two weeks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his office in Jerusalem on a phone call with UAE leader Mohammed Bin Zayed, on August 13, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/PMO)

In the months since, as the virus crisis impacted the economy, driving up unemployment and forcing restrictions on many aspects of public life, Likud has steadily dropped in polls to a number of Knesset seats in the high twenties, or 32 seats according to the party’s own surveys.

That, Netanyahu tells guests in his office, will now change as the inoculation program provides long-awaited relief. By polling day on March 23, he expects Likud to have reached another peak in popularity, estimating the party will win 38-40 seats.

Netanyahu is wont to tell his guests that vaccinations, along with a feeling of finally being free from the coronavirus, will dramatically change the mood of the economy and society.

“People in the end vote according to action taken, on results, on achievement,” Netanyahu says. “In the moment of truth they know who brought them the vaccines, and who is getting them out of the crisis.”

The coronavirus will be at the heart of the coming vote, he asserts, and “the elections will be on that and nothing else.”

On Tuesday Netanyahu visited a vaccination center, posing with vaccinated citizen number 500,000. Similar photos are expected with each milestone figure in the national vaccination program.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (4L) and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (2L) accompany David Herzl Levy as he becomes the 500,000th Israeli to receive a coronavirus vaccine.(Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Netanyahu also dismisses the threat to Likud from former member Gideon Sa’ar, who earlier this month set up the New Hope party to directly challenge Netanyahu for the leadership, and the desertion of former minister Ze’ev Elkin, a confidant of the prime minister, who switched to New Hope saying he can no longer back Netanyahu with a clear conscience. Other Likud MKs have also joined Sa’ar’s party.

“Sa’ar is just air — an inflated balloon that will burst,” Netanyahu reportedly tells his guests, rejecting the New Hope challenge as “amateurism” and “nonsense,” and saying the party doesn’t have the political roots, base, or tradition to become a ruling power.

Gideon Sa’ar seen during a visit to Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center in Jerusalem on December 16, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He is said to note that historically, aside from Labor, there has been no other party that has faced Likud and stood the test of time.

With that, recent polls have shown that Labor is now not predicted to pass the threshold into the Knesset. Likud’s unity government partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, has plummeted in polls and is hovering just above the threshold, despite having won 33 seats in the last elections.

Within Likud, Netanyahu is consolidating his position. Though the party’s internal court decided Sunday that primaries should be held, its legislative committee and secretariat are expected to shelve the idea, the report said. At the same time, Netanyahu is seeking to reserve spots for three personal picks on the party’s slate, eventually securing positions 5, 26, and 30.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) with Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, at the president’s guesthouse, in Washington, DC, February 14, 2017. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Netanyahu wants to fill the high-ranking fifth spot with Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, who will end his term with the start of the incoming Biden administration in January.

However, Dermer is said to be uninterested in the political or public arenas for the time being, being more inclined to join a think tank. He has also turned down a Netanyahu offer to head the National Security Council, Zman reported.

The coming change in administration in the US has been accompanied by rumors that outgoing US President Donald Trump, who cooperated closely with Netanyahu during his term, could visit Israel in February in what could be a boost for the prime minister. However, sources close to Netanyahu deny a visit is being planned, the report said.

A Channel 12 news poll published Sunday predicted 28 seats for Likud, 19 for New Hope, 16 for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid-Telem, 13 for Yamina, 11 for the Joint List, eight each for Shas and United Torah Judaism, seven for Yisrael Beytenu and five for both Blue and White and Meretz. Labor did not pass the threshold for entry to the Knesset in the poll.

The poll results showed that neither Likud nor rival New Hope would be able to cobble together a coalition without the other.

Elections, the fourth in the space of two years, were called last week after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline.

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