Netanyahu lags centre-left in last polls before Israel vote

Steve Weizman
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Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party candidate in general elections, Benjamin Netanyahu, delivers a speech to his supporters during an election campaign meeting in the Israeli Mediterranean coastal city of Netanya on March 11, 2015

Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party candidate in general elections, Benjamin Netanyahu, delivers a speech to his supporters during an election campaign meeting in the Israeli Mediterranean coastal city of Netanya on March 11, 2015 (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Jerusalem (AFP) - Final opinion polls on Friday put Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's rightwing Likud party four seats behind its centre-left rival with four days to go before a general election.

Several polls released Friday -- the last day opinion surveys can be released before Tuesday's vote -- showed the Zionist Union pulling further ahead of Likud after an intense campaign.

Netanyahu, who gambled by calling the vote nearly two years early after his government coalition fell apart late last year, has warned Israel's security will be at risk if his rivals win.

But the opposition's call for change after nearly six years of rule by the divisive Netanyahu appears to have been heard by many voters.

A poll in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper showed the Zionist Union winning 26 of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, against 22 for Likud.

Other polls for the Jerusalem Post and Maariv dailies, and for Israeli public radio, also showed a four-seat gap, with the Zionist Union taking 25 seats to 21 for Likud.

All the polls showed the Joint List, a newly formed alliance of Israel's main Arab parties, in third, with 13 seats.

The centrist Yesh Atid of former finance minister Yair Lapid and the far-right Jewish Home were both expected to win at least 11 seats, the polls showed.

The Zionist Union was created in December by fusing Israel's once-dominant Labour party with the centrist HaTnuah led by Tzipi Livni, Israel's former chief peace negotiator with the Palestinians.

Should they form the next government, the parties have agreed on a two-year rotation for the premiership, with Herzog taking the first tenure.

Under Israel's proportional vote system, instead of electing individual members of the Knesset voters choose party lists, with seats distributed according to the percentage of the vote received.


- 'Four days is a long time' -


Friday's polls left Likud shaken, with spokeswoman Noga Katz reiterating Netanyahu's call on rightwingers to support his party over smaller parties on the right and far-right.

"If the gap between Likud and Labour does not close, there's a real danger that Tzipi and Bougie (Herzog's nickname) will become prime minister by rotation, with the support of the Arab list," she said in a statement.

"The electorate of the nationalist camp do not, this time, have the privilege to vote for small rightwing parties."

Even if it does win the most seats, the Zionist Union will not necessarily be tasked with forming the next government.

With polls showing Netanyahu's natural allies on the right likely to win the most seats overall, he has a clear advantage in piecing together a coalition and may instead be tasked by President Reuven Rivlin with forming a government.

Yediot Aharonot analyst Sima Kadmon said a lot could still change before polling stations open.

"As has been proven in previous elections, four days is a long time," she wrote on Friday, pointing out that over the same period in the run-up to the January 2013 election Yesh Atid gained four to five seats over what polls had forecast.

"The way down is even quicker," she added. "A party with a negative momentum could find itself on Tuesday night with fewer seats than the last poll predicted."

Naftali Bennett, head of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home, called for a united pre-election rally of the right to be held in Tel Aviv.

"On Sunday at 7:00 pm there will be a big rally of the national camp," he said in a video posted on his Facebook site.

"I expect everyone to come, thousands and thousands will be there," he said.

A Likud spokesman said the event was not being organised by Netanyahu's party but it was likely that Likud supporters would attend.

As Israel prepared to go to the polls, Israeli troops opened fire with live bullets towards more than 100 stone-throwing protesters in the northern West Bank, wounding a teenager who was shot through the ankle, medics and an AFP correspondent said.

The clashes took place on the outskirts of Jazalun refugee camp near Ramallah, amid simmering tension in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Palestinians are keen for a change from Netanyahu, hoping for a more suitable partner for future peace talks.