Sinking in polls, Netanyahu belatedly bids to take control of his chaotic coalition

Sobered by declining popularity, PM is seeking to impose a new strategy of quiet on his unruly allies — while gearing up for a relaunch of the judiciary fight

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

It’s one of the recurring ironies of Israeli politics: Nothing stabilizes a teetering government or parliamentary coalition more effectively than declining poll numbers.

Since the Netanyahu government’s swearing-in on December 29, the country has seemed to lurch from one dramatic crisis to another. The defense minister was fired but continues to serve; the security cabinet hasn’t met in months, even as threats escalate near and far. Unpopular and illiberal bills, diplomatic crises with neighbors and allies — and over it all the persistent drumbeat of the judiciary crisis tears new fissures in the fabric of Israeli society.

The only thing Israelis now seem to agree on is the scale of the crisis. In an online poll last week, the Israeli political website The Madad asked respondents to characterize the current crisis. The two most dire options — “the most serious crisis in the country’s history” and the softer “among the most serious crises in the country’s history” — were selected by 39% of right-wing respondents, 71% of the center-right, 90% of the center, 95% of the center-left and 66% of the left.

What Israelis disagree on is who should be blamed for the crisis. Most voters for opposition parties blame the government and its fast-moving push to dramatically remake Israel’s judiciary. Most voters for the coalition blame the opposition.

But there are some 10 Knesset seats’ worth of right-wing voters who don’t track along the expected lines, who were dislodged by the turmoil and are fleeing Netanyahu’s coalition.

The shift is visible in every poll.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on January 9, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Losing ground

In the three months that separate a December 23 poll for the Maariv newspaper and a poll on March 27 for the Kan public broadcaster, the ruling coalition shrank from 64 seats to 53.

That’s the pessimistic scenario for the government. The optimistic one comes from the pro-Netanyahu Channel 14 and the pollster Shlomo Filber, a former Netanyahu confidant. Filber’s polls show the coalition dropping from 64 seats to 58 between February 3 and March 28. (A helpful chart of polls is regularly updated at

Even this smallest of drops is more than the government can afford. The coalition has an eight-seat lead in the current Knesset, but it’s a function of the 3.25% vote threshold rather than a dramatic majority at the ballot box. Almost exactly eight seats’ worth of votes were lost when Meretz and Balad failed to clear the threshold on November 1.

It matters, then, that perhaps as many as ten seats’ worth of supporters have now turned away from Netanyahu’s coalition and appear to be surging to Benny Gantz’s centrist National Unity list, which polled at 10-12 seats three months ago but now routinely gets over 20.

Netanyahu has good reason to believe the more dire polls. Two years ago, in the March 2021 election, the parties that now make up his coalition won 52 seats at the ballot box. The rest were drawn to his banner as a protest at the last government, not necessarily out of love for the new coalition.

Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich with United Torah Judaism leader Yitzchak Goldknopf at the Knesset on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During the coalition talks in December, these were the voters pollsters identified as frustrated by the windfall of concessions Likud gave to the Haredi parties and the far-right — more money for yeshivas, more powers to the rabbinate, new ministries and powers for Itamar Ben Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich.

Then, almost the moment those talks ended, the coalition launched its breakneck race to overhaul the judiciary, crystallizing a great deal of that frustration into a turn toward Gantz.

By late March, Gantz started pulling voters away from Yesh Atid too, pushing him in multiple polls (Channel 12’s on March 27, Channel 14’s on March 28) ahead of opposition leader Yair Lapid.

It’s a general rule on the center and left borne out repeatedly over the five election cycles of the past four years: Centrist and leftist voters have low levels of party loyalty. They tend to rally to the banner of the candidate or list that seems to be gaining momentum, to be unifying the center-left’s ranks against the right.

That’s especially true among parties with overlapping constituencies. About two-thirds of Gantz voters are thought to support a compromise on judicial reform, while one-third oppose the idea. In Yesh Atid, the share is flipped: Perhaps a third support a compromise with the right; most do not.

The combination of Likud’s centrists and Yesh Atid’s rightist flank helped drive Gantz’s National Unity to the 21-23 range.

National Unity leader MK Benny Gantz arrives at an anti-government protest in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023. (Naomi Lanzkron/Times of Israel)

Netanyahu’s good luck

Yet Gantz isn’t the story here. His new backers may be the most fickle voters on the political spectrum. It wouldn’t take much — a new liberal-right party, a split-off New Hope, a revivified Yamina — to peel many of them away.

The real story is Netanyahu, the main beneficiary of Gantz’s good fortune. The sudden drop in coalition support below the 60-seat halfway mark has forced even Netanyahu’s most radical partners to sober up quickly, temper or set aside unpopular bills and proposals, and begin to rethink their behavior.

No coalition member wants to risk facing the voters anytime soon. None can reasonably expect a more favorable outcome than the coalition they have now.

Even the coalition’s most uninhibited far-right radical, former Kahanist activist Itamar Ben Gvir, who built his political career on the carefully cultivated persona of a pugilistic underdog, is suddenly toeing the line.

Ben Gvir has been a constant thorn in Netanyahu’s side from the birth of this government. He’s picked fights with other ministers, exchanged angry retorts at cabinet meetings, repeatedly defied and criticized Netanyahu, and even publicly threatened to resign and topple the government.

Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit political party, visits Beit Orot, in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of At-Tur, October 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But Ben Gvir’s poll showing isn’t much better than other coalition parties. Despite his best efforts, many of his supporters have begun to view the government as too conciliatory and see him as a disappointment. Many were angered by Netanyahu’s pausing of the judicial overhaul rush last month, a mood shift that led a worried Ben Gvir to threaten to quit.

Ben Gvir’s threat frightened Netanyahu. The Otzma Yehudit leader wasn’t going to topple the coalition; he clarified quickly that he was only planning to resign from the government but would continue to support the coalition from the Knesset. But Netanyahu was already smarting from the loss of supporters to Gantz and feared that a dramatic public resignation by Ben Gvir might peel away supporters on his rightist flank.

He took Ben Gvir’s threat seriously enough to finally fulfill his promise to establish a new “national guard” under Ben Gvir’s direct control.

And in return, Netanyahu obtained from the Otzma Yehudit leader a concession (framed by Otzma Yehudit as a “demand”): Netanyahu, said the far-right faction, had until the end of July to get the judicial reform back on track.

It was a welcome reprieve. It meant the overhaul could now be set aside so the coalition can deal with a more urgent problem: The late-May deadline for passing the state budget. Failure would trigger the automatic dissolution of the Knesset and early elections. Once the budget law passes, Netanyahu’s government will be safe from that particular danger until the next budget deadline in March 2025.

Police deploy a water cannon on Israelis occupying a main highway to protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, April 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Hot summer

The schedule, then, is clear.

The judicial overhaul is temporarily on hold and all coalition partners are playing nice so that the government can focus on the state budget. Once the budget law passes in May, the government will have bought itself almost two years of relative stability.

Then, beginning in early June and lasting until the end of the Knesset’s summer session in late July, Netanyahu will be able to push through more pieces of the judicial overhaul. Likud has already begun to build its grassroots operation to mobilize counter-protesters and respond forcefully to a renewal of protests against the restarted legislative drive.

Chastened by its recent failures, the coalition is now advancing more carefully. Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s strategy of an aggressive legislative blitz is blamed by many in the coalition for sparking the mass protests that brought the legislation to a temporary halt. That strategy has now been set aside in favor of one more in character for Netanyahu: Slower, more cautious, waiting for the opponent to tire rather than pursuing a head-on collision.

When he announced the legislative pause, Netanyahu nonetheless made sure two key bills in the overhaul, the change to judicial appointments committee that grants the coalition the right to appoint justices on its own and the “Second Deri Law” allowing Shas leader Aryeh Deri to return to the cabinet, were placed on the docket for their final plenum votes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, center, and Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It’s a seemingly dry technicality that lays bare the strategy. Each bill can be brought to a final vote with as little as perhaps two days’ warning.

In other words, Netanyahu went into the “pause” with the legislative bullet already in the chamber and ready to be fired at a moment’s notice.

Netanyahu has struggled and largely failed to keep his coalition under control over the past three months. But the government’s ever-growing list of crises and failures, and the resulting rush of unhappy supporters to the opposition, have created a new dynamic. He now seems to be moving to regain the initiative, retake control of the government’s legislative strategy, and rein in his less savvy partners.

Netanyahu promised four months ago that he would have “two hands on the wheel” of the coalition he was building. As failure followed failure, he stopped making that case.

Few Israelis pin their hopes on President Isaac Herzog’s compromise talks. The prime minister, for his part, is spending this time of “negotiations” trying to stabilize his coalition and laying the groundwork for a more cautious and, he hopes, more successful push starting in May.

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