With just two weeks to Israel’s next election on March 23, the latest polling shows further weakening in Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party.
In a survey conducted for the Jerusalem Post and Maariv newspapers, the Likud has dropped from 29 to 27 seats.
Despite being quick off the block in obtaining Pfizer, Moderna and the Russian Sputnik vaccines, Netanyahu has been highly criticized by both the public and the medical profession for opening and closing lockdowns that have frustrated large sectors of the community.
The latest storm came days ago when, against the advice of his public health advisors, Netanyahu decided to open up Ben Gurion Airport to allow 3,000 Israelis to return to the country. This was seen as a biased political sop ahead of the March 23 election and the move seems to have backfired on the prime minister.
Netanyahu has lost the votes of small business owners whose livelihoods and bank accounts have suffered by the impositions of repeated lockdowns.
He has also lost the trust of a third of the population who, for whatever reason, will not be vaccinated and are annoyed at being treated like second class citizens for not submitting to a vaccination they do not trust. The Israeli government has, so far, refused to allow a national outpatient trial on the drug Ivermectin which has been receiving favorable advance reports where tests have been done in several countries. Such a drug, of proven safe and effective, as seems to be the results in local trials, will help people unable to be vaccinated to avoid or recover from Covid in its early stages, thus reducing the strain on the hospital system.
It is estimated that the Covid issue alone will lose Netanyahu and the Likud at least a million votes.
Add to that the feeling that no prime minister in the midst of a prolonged criminal trial can fully concentrate of the task of leading the country is wearing against Netanyahu whose trial officially began a couple of weeks ago.
Secular middle class Israelis are moving to Yesh Atid, the party of Yair Lapid. This former TV host and journalist does not have a record of any remarkable achievement in his past ministerial posts but his charisma and broad appeal has led his party up to 20 seats and rising in the polls.
Naftali Bennett’s Yemina party has closed the gap on Gideon Saar’s New Hope party, each with 12 seats.
Both politicians are personally in the center-right camp. Gideon Saar comes from the Likud party, held ministerial positions, but broke away after differences with Netanyahu. The same can be said for Naftali Bennett.
The difference between the two is that Saar is an out and out politician but Bennett came into politics with a proven record in hi-tech, successfully guiding a start-up security company to exit for $150M before entering politics. He is more of a technocrat than a parliamentary politician. Though he holds a center right political position, this would not prevent him entering into a coalition with Yesh Atid, although he has stated that he would never serve in a government with Lapid as Prime Minister.
The surprise of the new poll finds Avigdor Liberman’s Israel Home party with nine seats. It is difficult to see from where these extra seats come from. Liberman has been dismissed by many who once supported him. Anecdotally, he retains the trust of some of the Russian community in Israel. If correct, however, Liberman’s nine seats could be a game-changer as it will give additional weight to an anti-Bibi block of parties and be a deadly blow to the Likud being able to form a government.
More of this later.
The Shas party of Arieh Deri, catering to the Sephardi religious community, stays solid with 8 seats, but the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox United Torah has slipped to seven seats.
The Arab Joint list has split with the Islamist party breaking away. This has reduced the Arab Joint List to seven seats. It is reported that, in this election, many Arab voters intend to vote for non-Arab parties including some who have said that they would even vote Likud.
The Labour party that seemed dead and buried has seen a revival under the woman in black –she never wears any other color – Michal Michaeli. Michaeli holds several radical views, one of which is she is against marriage, but she has forcefully reinjected Labour back to life since her recent thrust for the leadership with the poll giving her party five seats.
Parties teetering on the threshold include Blue & White. This is the party of Benny Ganz, the rotational Prime Minister in the last government, now on the edge of extinction.
Two other parties who are on the edge of the required 3.25% electoral votes are on the extremities of the Israeli political map. The hard Socialist Meretz party and the Religious Zionist party representing the settler movement in Judea & Samaria.
The election pivots on the personality of Benjamin Netanyahu. The vote is critically split between those who want Bibi to continue as prime minister and those who want change.
The drift of the last three polls indicate that he is slipping.
Taking the numbers, and trying to form a workable coalition, the blocks are either pro-Bibi, or anti-Bibi and, as we look at the latest poll, if the Religious Zionist party fails to achieve a mandate, there is no way that the Likud can form a required 61 seat majority government.
On the other hand, it is difficult to see, even after the post-election horse-trading, how the parties will be able to put their personal and ideological differences aside to cobble together any form of government that will survive the test of parliamentary bickering should they ever get into power.
Prediction. Unless we get a significant shift in the remaining two weeks, Israel could be on its way to yet another election in September.
Barry Shaw is the International Public Diplomacy Director for the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies