Analysis: Bye-bye Bibi: Could this month’s poll bring down Netanyahu?

Israel votes in its fourth general election in under two years later this month – with the latest polls suggesting Benjamin Netanyahu’s long premiership may be drawing to a close. But Israel’s longest-serving prime minister may get a reprieve thanks to the divided and ideologically diverse nature of the opposition he faces.

Bye-bye Bibi?

A poll commissioned for Channel 13 released just before the weekend showed the pro-Netanyahu bloc of parties far short of a majority.

  • The poll put the Likud party on 27 seats (down from 36 in the March 2020 election). Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox and religious right allies bring the number of MKs supporting the prime minister to 45 in the 160-member Knesset.
  • Parties pledged to oppose Netanyahu remaining in office – from former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope on the right to the left-wing Meretz party – are set to garner 60 seats. The revived Labor party is projected to provide six of those seats.
  • Naftali Bennett’s hard-right Yamina party on 11 and the Islamist Ra’am party on four would thus hold the balance of power, although Bennett’s backing alone wouldn’t be sufficient to allow Likud to form a government. Both parties have not said whether they would back Netanyahu.
  • A survey for 103 FM radio published on Monday showed Likud on 28 seats, the pro-Netanyahu bloc on 47 and Yamina on 12. Ra’am – which broke away from the Arab-Israeli Joint List – failed to cross the threshold to enter the Knesset.
  • The Channel 13 survey showed that while, by a small plurality, Netanyahu remains the most popular choice for prime minister, 58 percent of voters don’t want him to stay in power after the election.

The plan that went wrong

Netanyahu had indicated he was aiming for 36-40 seats for Likud and planned to utilise Israel’s successful vaccination drive to create post-pandemic momentum in his favour. But, as Yossi Verter of Haaretz wrote following a series of snippy media interviews by the prime minister this week, that plan seems to be unravelling. “Netanyahu is stressed and easily pressured into action – as Ariel Sharon said about him – because his plan is going all wrong. Unemployment has hardly budged, nor has the number of covid-19 cases. The R number – the average number of people each patient infects – is now back at 1, and in 10 days we’ll all feel the results of the mass Purim parties that [public security minister] Amir Ohana’s police were unable to stop. This future will make it hard for Bibi to carry out the final stage in his March plot: a carnival of a reopening a week before the election.”

A play for the votes of Israeli-Arabs

Netanyahu’s relationship with Israeli Arabs, who constitute some 20 percent of the population, has long been fraught and dogged by allegations that, come election time, he plays the race card. Given the tight contest he now finds himself in, however, the prime minister is adopting a remarkably different tack this time:

  • Nearly 90 percent of Israeli-Arabs voted for the Joint List last March with Likud winning only two percent.
  • The Joint List – a coalition of Islamists, the far-left and secular nationalists – has split for this election. The Islamist Ra’am party, with its hardline socially conservative stance, is running separately from the Hadash, Balad and Ta’al parties. Its leader, Mansour Abbas, has adopted an increasingly warm stance towards the prime minister and his government. He has indicated that, to advance the interests of Israeli-Arabs, he would be open to serving as a minister in a Likud-led government and even voting to give Netanyahu immunity from prosecution in the prime minister’s current corruption trial. Ra’am, which teeters on the edge of the electoral threshold, could thus add a vital couple of additional seats to Netanyahu’s column.
  • Netanyahu has been campaigning in Arab towns and touting the success of the vaccination programme. He has also placed an Arab Muslim on the Likud list.
  • Last week, it was revealed that Likud MK Fateen Mulla, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, held talks with the PLO in what was reportedly a bid to persuade the Palestinians to help Likud win the backing of Israeli-Arabs. The Palestinian Authority is said to be concerned at the prospect of Netanyahu been replaced by a more hawkish Israeli premier, such as Bennett or Sa’ar. The Movement for Quality Government watchdog has called for an inquiry as to whether Mulla used “public property to coordinate foreign interference in the Knesset elections”.

Unorthodox behaviour

Netanyahu is facing a further row over allegations that – at a time when Israel’s borders are shut due to covid-19 restrictions – Haredi Israelis who are abroad but want to return home were being allowed back into the country, while secular Israelis’ requests were being denied. (Israelis wishing to vote have to be in the country on polling day). Deputy prime minister Benny Gantz, who leads the centrist Blue and White party, said he was investigating the reports, which, if true, would seemingly give an advantage to pro-Netanyahu parties, while there was also an angry reaction from opposition leader Yair Lapid and Labor leader Merav Michaeli. The Israel Democracy Institute think tank said that “sweeping restrictions on Israeli citizens’ ability to return from overseas is extremely problematic from a constitutional perspective” and claimed that “restrictions on entry by citizens and permanent residents at this time could infringe on the right to vote in the upcoming election”.

Will the opposition rescue Netanyahu?

Netanyahu may yet be saved, however, by the ideologically heterogeneous nature of the forces ranged against him:

  • Last week, both Bennett and Saar made clear that they would not serve in a government headed by the centrist Lapid. Both, however, said they would have no problem entering into a coalition which included Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. Their comments were designed to defuse a frequent Netanyahu attack line – that the two right-wingers were preparing to join “a left-wing government headed by Lapid”. Bennett and Sa’ar both claim that only they are capable of putting together a coalition which can topple Netanyahu from power.
  • Some analysts suggested Bennett’s comments were a strategic mistake, removing the ambiguity about who he’d back after the election which had led him to be seen as the “kingmaker”.
  • Bennett’s statement appeared to end Lapid’s chances of becoming prime minister – he can not only rely on the potential support of Labor, Meretz and the Joint List. But they may have indirectly boosted Sa’ar, whose party is running third in the polls behind Likud and Yesh Atid, if centrist voters conclude that he stands the best chance of ousting Netanyahu.

Bye-bye Benny?

Gantz’s Blue and White plunged in the polls when the former IDF commander broke his oft-repeated pledge not to serve alongside Netanyahu and formed a “unity government” with the prime minister last summer. Blue and White – once again firmly in the anti-Netanyahu camp – now teeters close to the threshold and should, high-profile critics suggested last week, withdraw from the race. Their fear is that, should Blue and White not enter the Knesset, its anti-Netanyahu votes – which might otherwise go to Labor, Yesh Atid or New Hope – will be wasted. But, buoyed by a run of polls showing him winning four or five seats, Gantz is pledging to stay in the campaign “to the end”.

What happens next

Unless the polls are wrong and the Netanyahu bloc has a clear pathway to form a right-wing government after the votes are counted on 23 March, there could be weeks of negotiation between Lapid, Sa’ar and Bennett to form an alternative government. If they don’t come to fruition a fifth election will be on the cards.