Netanyahu Has Edge in Tight Poll Race, With Smaller Parties Key

Ivan Levingston
Netanyahu Has Edge in Tight Poll Race, With Smaller Parties Key

(Bloomberg) -- Scandal-tainted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have a clearer path to victory than his rival as Israel’s election enters the homestretch.

Final opinion polls released before the weekend showed Netanyahu’s Likud party trailing top rival and former military chief Benny Gantz’s Blue & White bloc in a close race, but with a majority of seats going to Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition.

With a fifth term in sight, Netanyahu has pulled out all the stops before the April 9 vote, questioning Gantz’s emotional stability and warning supporters that if they don’t vote for his party then right-wing government will be endangered. Just days before the vote, he also dangled the prospect of annexing West Bank land, a cause dear to right-wing hearts.

Netanyahu’s “kind of magical ability to be on the one hand a world leader, and on the other hand to be a first-class inciter, is working well for him,” said Dan Avnon, chairman of Hebrew University’s political science department. “It seems now that he will have the upper hand in determining the composition of the next government.”

All eyes will be on whether Netanyahu’s right-wing camp or Gantz’s center-left bloc will command the most seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament. Analysts say a key question on election night is which smaller parties cross the 3.25 percent vote threshold -- equivalent to four seats -- to enter parliament.

Polls show a few potential Netanyahu allies hovering right around that mark. If they make it in, that could give Netanyahu a much clearer path to forming a government. If they don’t, it could jeopardize his ability to form a governing alliance.

“A lot of the action is around the threshold,” said Simon Davies, a pollster and political consultant for Number 10 Strategies. “No poll is precise enough to tell if someone’s going to get 3.1 percent or 3.3 percent -- so that area, the bottom, no poll can tell you.”

After voting, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will choose the party -- not necessarily the largest one -- that has the best chance of forming a coalition with at least 61 members. In 2009 Netanyahu’s Likud was picked to lead the government despite being the second-largest party.

Netanyahu has tried to persuade voters that only he can lead Israel, racking up significant accomplishments on the international stage in the closing weeks of the campaign.

With Russia’s help he secured the return of the remains of an Israeli soldier missing since the 1982 Lebanon war, and traveled to the Kremlin to thank President Vladimir Putin in person.

He also won recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the war-won Golan Heights from U.S. President Donald Trump, and hosted Jair Bolsonaro in Jerusalem, where the Brazilian president announced the opening of a trade office. Those international ties have boosted Netanyahu despite the corruption charges he likely faces after the vote.

Netanyahu also has dangled domestic promises for his right-wing base. In a Saturday night interview he suggested that if re-elected he would extend Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements, an incendiary gambit Israeli leaders have avoided for half a century. That could gain Likud more support, but -- if it siphons too many votes from smaller right-wing parties -- could leave potential right-wing allies short of the electoral threshold.

Political newcomer Gantz made his own case that a change in power is needed. In a town hall event last week in Tel Aviv, he warned of “an emergency era” with Israeli democracy under threat.

Anything could happen in the days before the vote, particularly given the unreliability of polls and a premier with a history of inflammatory proclamations on election eve.

During Israel’s last election in 2015, polls showed Netanyahu’s party trailing the center-left Zionist Union. Netanyahu ultimately prevailed after warning supporters on voting day that Arab voters were “going to the polls in droves.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ivan Levingston in Tel Aviv at ilevingston@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Lin Noueihed at lnoueihed@bloomberg.net, Michael S. Arnold, Amy Teibel

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