Netanyahu not hugely popular, but not threatened by divided opposition — polls

Only one-third of Israelis want the PM to return to his post after the April ballot, but that’s still well ahead of any other candidate

Illustrative: A woman places her vote in a ballot box for the Israeli general elections for the 19th parliament, January 22, 2013, in Jerusalem. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative: A woman places her vote in a ballot box for the Israeli general elections for the 19th parliament, January 22, 2013, in Jerusalem. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As Israel heads to elections, a first major round of polls on Tuesday found that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the strong favorite to win the upcoming race, scheduled for April 9, though he is not hugely popular among voters.

The polls found that most Israelis do not think Netanyahu should be the next prime minister, though even fewer think any one of his rivals should be. In Israel’s multi-party system, however, even middling support is usually enough to win the premiership.

The only serious challenge to Netanyahu, according to polls published by Israel’s main news broadcasts Tuesday, is a partnership between former IDF chief Benny Gantz and an existing center-left party.

Gantz is widely expected to run but has yet to formally announce his candidacy or whether he will form his own party or join with another, making him one of the biggest question marks as the campaigning kicks off.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces elections will be held in April, 2019, at a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, December 24, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/FLASH90)

According to Channel 10, if elections were held today: The ruling Likud party would receive 30 seats out of the Knesset’s 120. Yesh Atid comes a distant second at 15; Zionist Union would receive 12; the Arab Joint List 12; Jewish Home 10; Orly Levy-Abekasis’s new party, named “Gesher,” 8; Yisrael Beytenu, United Torah Judaism, and Meretz would all receive 7; Kulanu and Shas would get 6.

With Gantz in the race running at the head of his own party, Likud remains in an unassailable position at 27 seats, followed by Gantz with 15, and Yesh Atid with 12, the Channel 10 poll said.

The threat to Likud comes only from a center-left alliance, the poll suggests: Should Gantz team up with Yesh Atid, together they could win 26 seats to Likud’s 27.

Former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz speaks to reporters outside the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa on September 28, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The poll noted the center-left bloc overall appeared poised to win just 54 seats — not enough to cobble together a coalition, unless they formed a coalition with ultra-Orthodox parties that could mean difficult compromises for secularist Yesh Atid and liberal Meretz.

Hadashot TV’s poll found similar figures, with Likud far out in front in any scenario that doesn’t include major new alliances in the center-left.

With Gantz running on his own, Likud would win 29 seats, Gantz’s party 16, the Arab Joint List 12, Zionist Union 11, and Yesh Atid 11.

Yair Lapid speaks at the Globes business newspaper Conference, at the Jerusalem Convention Center, on December 19, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Should Gantz run on a joint ticket with the Zionist Union, the Likud would win 31 seats and the new alliance 25, Hadashot said. Yesh Atid would stay at 11.

A survey by the Kan public broadcaster showed an even stronger showing for Likud, which got 30 seats to second-place Yesh Atid at just 13, followed by Zionist Union at 10.

The channel said Gantz would also get 10 seats if he runs alone. It did not poll in a  scenario if Gantz joins with another party.

Earlier in the day, a poll by the Walla news site found that a Gantz-Yesh Atid alliance could win 26 seats to Likud’s 31.

Netanyahu on Monday called early elections for April, setting the stage for a three-month campaign clouded by a series of corruption investigations against the long-serving Israeli leader.

With the Likud leader holding a commanding lead in the polls, all eyes are on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit and whether he will decide before April’s elections on whether to press charges against the longtime leader on a series of corruption allegations.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit attends a State Control committee meeting in the Knesset on December 3, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“Avichai Mandelblit needs to tell us before the elections if there is an indictment or not,” Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid told the Ynet news site. “People need to know what they are voting for.”

Earlier this month, police recommended that Netanyahu be charged with bribery for promoting regulatory changes worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the country’s main telecom company Bezeq. In exchange, they believe Netanyahu used his connections with Bezeq’s controlling shareholder to secure positive press coverage on the company’s popular news site.

Police have also recommended indicting Netanyahu on corruption charges in two other cases. One involves accepting gifts from billionaire friends, and the second revolves around alleged offers of advantageous legislation for a major newspaper in return for favorable press coverage.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing, dismissing the allegations as a media-orchestrated witch hunt aimed at removing him from office. With the accusations looming, the upcoming election is expected to emerge as a referendum on Netanyahu as he seeks to become the longest-serving premier in Israeli history.

Kan’s survey found that few voters believed the three corruption cases against Netanyahu will affect their votes.

Asked if their choice would change if an indictment were filed against Netanyahu before election day, 71 percent said it would not. Just 3% said it would. A quarter, 26%, said they didn’t know or had not decided.

Sixty-one percent of respondents told Channel 10’s pollsters that Netanyahu should quit if indicted, 27% said he should not, and 12% had no opinion.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd-R) and other members of the security cabinet receive a briefing from Maj. Gen. Yoel Strik (L), head of the IDF’s Northern Command, during a tour of the northern border on December 25, 2018. (Haim Tzach/GPO)

At the same time, few Israelis are happy with Netanyahu as prime minister, the polls found, but even fewer see his rivals as potential replacements.

Hadashot’s poll found 52% don’t want Netanyahu to be the next prime minister, while 34% do.

A similar question posed by Kan gave Netanyahu a slightly better 37% of Israelis who prefer him for the next prime minister.

However, the channel found that Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz were only favored as prime minister by 13% of those polled, followed by Avi Gabbay (7%), Moshe Kahlon (6%), and Avigdor Liberman (3%).

Victory in April would put Netanyahu, the 69-year-old son of a historian who is no doubt mindful of his legacy, on track to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion.

A decisive win would allow him to ramp up his argument that the corruption investigations are merely the result of a plot by his political enemies to force him from office against the will of the electorate.

He is not required to step down if indicted, and there is little doubt that he would refuse to do so.

Gideon Rahat of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University and the Israel Democracy Institute think tank said he does not believe Mandelblit should take the campaign into account in determining when to issue his decision. But he will surely feel pressure to do so, said Rahat.

“I would say that he would probably prefer to wait until after the elections because he wouldn’t like to be blamed for influencing the elections or for trying to influence the elections,” Rahat said.

With Israel’s center-left opposition in disarray, Netanyahu’s main electoral threat appears to come from the right and center.

His reputation as Israel’s “Mr. Security” accounts in large part for his electoral success, but it took a hit over a controversial Gaza ceasefire in November.

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