Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly looked into teaming up with Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s New Right party, despite past animosity between the two, in a bid to head off a centrist challenge.
After rising star Benny Gantz’s leap in the polls following his maiden political speech on Tuesday and talk of mergers in the center-left bloc, the premier has examined the possibility of a similar right-wing alliance, the Kan public broadcaster reported on Thursday.
According to surveys ordered by Netanyahu’s Likud party, a joint list in which Bennett became Netanyahu’s no. 2 would benefit both men, enabling the merged party to beat any conceivable center-left alliance.
Conversely, the surveys reportedly showed that Likud teaming up with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party would cause the right-wing bloc to lose votes.
The news came amid polls showing Gantz rising in popularity — and numerous signs of Likud concern.
In Wednesday polls, taken a day after he made his maiden political speech, Gantz’s party was seen closing the gap with Likud, but remained some 6-9 seats behind the ruling party if it ran alone. However, a Channel 12 poll showed that a Gantz-headed alliance with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party would beat Likud, winning 35 seats to Likud’s 30. In such a scenario Gantz could be well-placed to form Israel’s next coalition government.
If Lapid led such a merged list, however, the parties would not pass Likud, only scoring 30 to the ruling party’s 31 seats.
Lapid has been resisting an alliance with Gantz, and his party insisted in a statement Wednesday that he remains the “only answer” to Netanyahu.
Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party said in a statement regarding the rosy polls that it was “not getting excited by the boost nor worrying about drops” in the numbers. “The public will decide,” it said.
On Thursday, however, Netanyahu seemed unwilling to leave things to chance. He stepped up his offensive against the former IDF chief, apparently leaking to the media his purported fears that Gantz would form a left-wing government if elected — and alleging that Arab lawmaker MK Ahmad Tibi has vowed to support such a government.
Gantz “doesn’t have an option to form a government without relying on the Joint List and Ta’al,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying, referring to the two Arab Israeli parties due to run in the April poll (Tibi earlier this month split from the Joint List party and is running at the head of his Ta’al party).
That the leaks were calculated was demonstrated when videos hit social media showing Tibi’s photograph washed in Gantz’s party colors, a military olive green.
The left also found itself scrambling to respond to the shifting polls.
Labor party leader Avi Gabbay repeated his call on Thursday for centrists Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid to explicitly promise they will not join a government headed by Netanyahu after the upcoming elections.
“I am happy that new people are entering politics and boosting the [center-left] bloc, and it can be boosted even more,” Gabbay told a group of Labor party mayors at a conference in Haifa.
“But to bring change we need to commit to a change in government,” he went on. “If there is such a commitment, I promise you that on April 9 Netanyahu won’t be prime minister. There will be a new prime minister, a new government, a government of hope.”
As Gantz has risen, Labor has been one of the main parties to suffer, dropping from already dismal polls showing around 10 seats to as low as 6, just two above the electoral threshold.
Opposition leader and Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich came to Gabbay’s defense Thursday amid growing anxiety and anger in the party at the leader overseeing its implosion.
“Avi Gabbay isn’t the problem,” Yachimovich said.
She put Gantz’s popularity down to his “unsullied” lack of any political record.
The political neophyte and former army chief leads a party, she said, “that hasn’t yet had a chance to be tainted, to answer a difficult question, to clarify its ideology, to commit to specific votes in the Knesset — our starting points aren’t equal.”
She said she welcomed a union with Gantz — “I very much want to see connections made” — but added, “he rejected us.”
She accused the centrist parties, Gantz’s Israel Resilience and Lapid’s Yesh Atid, of “clinging to the option of sitting in a Netanyahu government.”