Was Netanyahu’s plan for elections dashed by an opinion poll? That’s ridiculous
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AnalysisThe role of the poll

Was Netanyahu’s plan for elections dashed by an opinion poll? That’s ridiculous

A Monday survey showed Likud rising, and Netanyahu the clear favored PM. But a closer look at its findings was shocking for some of his coalition partners, and maybe even for him

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a plenum session in the Israeli parliament on March 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a plenum session in the Israeli parliament on March 13, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

On Monday night, Israel’s Hadashot TV news published an opinion poll that, at first glance, seemed like very good news for a prime minister planning on calling early elections.

The survey predicted that, were elections held today, Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing Likud party would maintain the 30 seats it won in the last elections, in 2015. That finding represented the Likud’s best showing in opinion polls since those elections, and marked an ongoing rise in support for Netanyahu’s party in recent weeks: As he’s been battered by new developments in the various corruption probes against him — new state’s witnesses, new allegations, new details regarding old allegations  — the public, far from abandoning him, has been telling the pollsters they support his party in ever larger numbers.

Hadashot also asked respondents for their favored choice of prime minister, and the finding constituted more good news for Netanyahu. No fewer than 36 percent said they want him in the prime minister’s office, compared to a mere 12% who prefer his Yesh Atid rival Yair Lapid, a paltry 8% who back the Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay, and a pitiful 6% who support self-declared would-be post-Netanyahu prime minister Naftali Bennett, the education minister from the Jewish Home party.

A closer look at the survey, however, suggested that perhaps it wasn’t entirely good news for the prime minister after all. And it was downright dismal for some of his coalition partners.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman leads a Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting at the Knesset on January 8, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

For lower down in the party showings, there were some unexpected developments. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu came in with only 4 seats — barely clearing the Knesset threshold and therefore at risk of disappearing altogether. Likewise, Shas, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, was down at 4 seats and in existential peril. Well below the Knesset threshold, meanwhile, were former Shas leader Eli Yishai’s Yahad party, and former Likud defense minister Moshe Ya’alon’s as-yet-unnamed new faction.

All these parties are current or potential coalition partners for the Likud. All are right-wing themselves or are natural allies of a right-wing leadership. And all appeared in Monday night’s poll to be in a degree of trouble. Even the more centrist Kulanu, a core member of the current coalition under its leader Moshe Kahlon, was shown to be in decline — winning only 6 seats compared to its current 10.

MK Orly Levy-Abekasis attends a Knesset committee meeting on March 15, 2017.(Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Some of those evaporating seats were, plainly, now going to the Likud. Others were trending to Bennett’s Jewish Home — shown rising to 11 from its current 8. And still others were headed to a party headed by Orly Levy-Abekasis, an MK who bolted from Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, and who has built a strong reputation in part as the longtime chair of a Knesset committee on the rights of children. Tuesday’s survey showed Levy-Abekasis — whose father, David Levy, a former foreign minister, was a particularly astute political operator — heading for 5 seats, and that’s before she’s even given her party a name.

The numbers in the Hadashot survey — which also found voters 54-30% opposed to elections now — did not constitute disaster for a Netanyahu-headed Likud attempting to put together a coalition after elections. They were dismal reading for Zionist Union (13 seats) and merely moderate for Lapid’s Yesh Atid (21 seats). But were Yisrael Beytenu and Shas to evaporate, and were the other findings to be borne out on election day, mustering a majority in the 120-member Knesset might prove unexpectedly complex for the Likud, with Levy-Abekasis a complicating, unpredictable factor: Would her support hold up or even grow? And where might she stand when it came to her preferred coalition?

Slightly less than 24 hours after the Hadashot survey was published, news broke that a deal had been done by the current coalition various parties — resolving the ostensible critical, government-threatening disputes over the ultra-Orthodox draft and the passage of the state budget — that meant the “coalition crisis” was over, and early elections were now off the agenda, at least for the time being.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Education Minister Naftali Bennett (L) at the Knesset on March 12, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

On Hadashot TV, the veteran political analyst Yaron Dekel had no doubt about what had changed. What Dekel called the “flip-flop” that saw the Netanyahu government move from heading to the polls in June as of Tuesday night, to a return to business as usual on Wednesday night, was a direct function of the TV poll. Liberman, shaken by the possibility of his party disappearing, had adopted a softer position on the issue of the draft; the rest of the coalition had already been doing its best to prevent Netanyahu calling early elections; the prime minister couldn’t be sure he’d get the Knesset votes to hold elections when he wanted them — in June — to strengthen his position ahead of a possible indictment in the corruption cases against him; the poll had prompted all kinds of second thoughts and reassessments; and the whole early elections edifice had come crashing down.

Interviewed on the same Hadashot TV news show, the maverick Likud MK Oren Hazan was of similar mind. “The heads of the coalition parties and the Likud ministers put the brakes on,” he said. Liberman, in particular, “understood that if he ‘sticks with his principles’ he’ll be watching the next Knesset on his TV at home.”

Illustrative: Likud MK Oren Hazan speaking during a Knesset plenary session, November 27, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Everyone looked at the surveys,” said Hazan of his colleagues. “They don’t want to relinquish their seats.”

Does all this mean that the Knesset will now see out its term through to November, 2019? Well, maybe. But also maybe not.

Does it mean that the spotlight will now return to the investigations of Netanyahu, and the pivotal decisions to be taken by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit? Certainly.

And does it mean that a likely early election was averted because of a — let’s be polite — somewhat unreliable telephone opinion survey, with a ±4.3% margin of error, in which fewer than 600 Israelis were questioned?

Well, of course not. That would be ridiculous. Rather, as Netanyahu declared in the Knesset in a brief address timed for the start of the nightly news on Tuesday, “I said yesterday I’d make a supreme effort to prevent elections… I promised, and I have kept that promise.”

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