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Polls cast doubt on 3rd Israeli elections

Two weeks from today on 2 March 2020, Israeli voters will head to the polls for the third election in just 11 months.

All of the latest polls reveal the massive division among constituents remains in effect that manifested in a political deadlock by the outcomes of both previous elections on 9 April and 17 September 2019.

The Blue and White party, lead by political newcomer and former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, is the frontrunner in the most public opinion surveys. The centrist faction rises from its current 33 seats to 34 in the 120-member Knesset according to the most recent Maariv poll conducted by the Smith Research Institute February 12-13 among 650 people, with a 3.9% margin of error. An Israel Hayom poll held by the Maagar Mohot Polling Institute, in which 505 people were questioned on the same dates with a 4.4% margin of error, shows the same outcome. Blue and White is running on the slogan that “It’s time to move forward” in a quest to oust the ruling Likud party lead Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; who has just been indicted on a series of criminal charges, including bribery, breach of trust and fraud. Gantz has long maintained he would be open to the formation of a unity government with Likud, contingent upon its dismissal of Netanyahu as leader.

The Likud is trailing close behind with a projected take of 33 seats according to Smith and 32 in the Maagar poll, reflecting little change from its current hold of 32. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been engaged in a frenzy of activity aimed at providing proof of what the party promotes as his unparalleled diplomatic prowess. In recent weeks, he stood in the White House alongside U.S. President Donald Trump during the unveiling of Washington’s Mideast Peace Plan involving the ultimate annexation of West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley. This was closely followed by talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow as he secured the release and brought home on his official jet a young Israeli woman who had been incarcerated in a Russian prison on drug charges, while also traveling to Uganda where he advanced relations with the African nation of Sudan. It would nevertheless appear that all of Mr. Netanyahu’s recent achievements, including diplomatic inroads with Gulf Arab nations over mutual opposition to Iran, have had minimal impact on altering existing support in the approaching balloting.

When looking at the larger picture, the Smith poll shows 57 mandates for the Center-Leftist-Arab bloc and just 56 for the right-wing. Maagar’s result varies slightly, with the rightwing-Orthodox Jewish alliance holding 57, while the Center-Left has 42 with 14 for the Arab Joint List – totaling 56; even though Gantz has ruled out the formation of a government with the Arab parties.

The Joint Arab List remains the third-largest party, rising from 13 to 14 seats according to both polls. The List is a political umbrella group consisting of the main Israeli-Arab factions of Balad, Hadash, Ta’al and the United Arab List. The alliance encompasses a wide range of ideologies including a two-state solution to the Palestinian dispute with Israel, Arab nationalism, leftwing nationalism, communism, socialism and Islamism as well as secularism. None of Israel’s major parties has shown willingness to invite the Joint List to join a coalition due to its non-or anti-Zionist stances. The Supreme Court recently ruled against a demand by several parties to disqualify Balad Knesset Member Heba Yazbak based on law banning candidates who openly support armed conflict against Israel after she hailed notorious Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar on social media post as a “martyr.” 53% of voters disapproved of that verdict, only 15% thought it was correct and 32% didn’t know, according to the the Maagar survey.

Meanwhile, Avigdor Liberman remains the perceived albeit slightly-weakened “kingmaker.” The Moldovon-born politician’s Yisrael Beiteinu party is projected to lose one mandate, dropping from its current 8 to 7 in both polls. While insisting he would only join a secular unity government between Likud and Blue and White during the last two coalition-building negotiations, Liberman appears more inclined toward signing onto a centrist government. Two days ago, the secularist candidate declared “The Netanyahu era is over,” and has ruled out any possibility of joining any government including the Premier’s ultra-Orthodox power base, whom he has long proclaimed guilty of wielding disproportionate influence. Due to Liberman’s allegations that terrorist sympathy among Israeli-Arab Knesset Members is tantamount to their identity as a ‘fifth column’ of traitors, the Joint List has already vowed to bring down any future government that would include Yisrael Beiteinu.

The Smith survey shows that both the the Sephardi-Jewish ultra-Orthodox Shas party and its polar opposite, the joint Labor-Gesher-Meretz list, would each garner 9 Knesset seats, while the Ashkenazi-Jewish United Torah Judaism and Religious-Zionist Yamina parties would take 7 each. With just receiving just 1.4% of the projected vote, the far-right Otzma Yehudit party would fail to cross the 3.25% electoral threshold.

By contrast, the Maagar poll found the Labor-Gesher-Meretz faction would drop from its current 11 mandates to 8, and Shas would also drop from 9 to 8 seats. Yamina would rise from 7 to 9, as would United Torah Judaism from 7 to 8. Otzma Yehudit once again failed to cross the electoral threshold with just 1%.

When asked who was better suited to be prime minister, the Smith questionnaire found that 49% of respondents support Benjamin Netanyahu versus just 40% for Benny Gantz, with 11% saying they had no opinion. 24% of Israelis listed security and foreign affairs concerns as the most important issues facing the country, followed by 21% who believe it is the economy, 20% for healthcare, 11% education, 6% each for Orthodox-secular relations and personal safety, 5% regarding relations between Jewish and Arab Israelis, 4% transportation, just 1% over the environment with 2% voicing no opinion.

35% of those polled by Maagar believe that Israel should endorse the Trump Peace Plan while 31% reject it. 32% favor the extension of Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and all West Bank settlements ahead of the upcoming elections, with 23% supporting the move afterward. Both Netanyahu and Gantz have voice support and promised to implement the the US proposal.

Maagar’s query as to what kind of government voters preferred revealed 30% majority support for a rightwing, Likud-led bloc and 22% for a center-left government lead by Blue and White with the Labor-Gesher-Meretz merger supported by the Joint List. Only 19% favored a narrow unity government with the Likud and Blue and White, trailed by 17% for a broad unity government between a Likud-lead right-wing bloc with the Blue and White and 12% who said they didn’t know. Conversely, when asked what kind of government they actually would be formed after the election, 21% said they didn’t know, 2% believed it would be center-left, 10% thought it would be a narrow unity government of the Likud with Blue and White, 11% forecast a center-left government of Blue and White and Labor-Gesher-Meretz with the Joint List’s support, 13% a broad unity government of the Likud, the right-wing bloc and Blue and White, and 15% for a Likud-lead rightwing coalition.

Never before in its 71-year history has Israel had to hold multiple rounds of balloting due to a seemingly impassable political deadlock, yet the once-unthinkable development remains a very real possibility. 40% of those polled by Maagar put the odds of yet another unwanted round of balloting at “High chance,” 34% a “Medium chance,” 16% a “Low chance” and 10% said they didn’t know.

Channel 12 correspondent Amit Segal has reported that Israel’s Central Elections Committee is not only “very quietly” preparing for such a round, but it has even set the date for a remarkable fourth Israeli consecutive election on September 8th.