Bibi’s Speech Fails to Move Israeli Election Polls

It would appear from the laudatory coverage in American media that Bibi Netanyahu is a shoo-in for election as prime minister of the United States; in Israel, not so much. At least, this is the only conclusion one can draw from this week’s polls in the run-up to Israel’s Knesset elections on March 17.

Against all expectations, Netanyahu received only the slightest of bounces as a result of the speech, which was televised and covered on radio in Israel.

These are the current numbers of the average of polls for this week:

Party                                               This Week            Last Week

HaMachane haTziyoni                         24                        25

Likud                                                 23                        23

United Arab List                                  13                        13

Yesh Atid                                           13                        12

HaBayit haYehudi                               12                        11

Kulanu                                                8                        8

Shas                                                   7                        7

Yahadut haTorah                                 6                        7

Meretz                                                5                        5

Yisrael Beytenu                                    5                        5

Yachad                                                4                        4

Hardly anything has changed, and “Right” and “Left” parties remain in relative parity in what is shaping up to be the most deeply divided Knesset in Israeli history.

That said, a coalition of the Left seems farther away than ever, thanks to two other major developments this week.

The first was the categorical rejection of the United Arab List to join any coalition headed by either of the two major parties, so long as Israel remains in “occupation” of the Palestinian homeland (they did not discount the possibility of supporting the Left from outside the coalition). This realistically means that if the above numbers reflect the final election totals, a Left coalition of HaMachane haTziyoni, Yesh Atid, and Meretz would have only 42 seats. Even if Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party could be induced to join, the coalition would have only 50 -- and 61 seats are necessary to govern.

While there have been minority coalitions in the past, they have always resulted from defections after a majority coalition had been formed, never ab initio. Further, Kahlon’s free-market leanings make him an unlikely partner for the socialist parties.

The second event was a massive rally of Shas supporters (expected to be the single largest political rally of the current election season) in which an estimated 10,000 people gathered in an arena in Tel Aviv (with another 3,000 watching closed-circuit television hook-ups in various locations around the country). They heard Party Chairman Aryeh Der’i, who had previously been hinting at a willingness to work with either side, declare: “We are with you, Binyamin Netanyahu. We want you as prime minister, but we want you as Bibi-Begin, not Bibi-Lapid.”

This was a reference to Likud’s founder, Menachem Begin, who had enjoyed massive support from Israel’s Sephardic population, and to the outgoing, short-lived coalition with Yesh Atid, which had frozen out and ostracized the religious parties.

A coalition of the right is still just barely possible, with the above numbers. The constituent parties would have to be Likud, HaBayit haYehudi, Kulanu, Shas, Yahadut haTorah, and Yisrael Beytenu, which would yield 61 seats. Such a coalition would be very fragile, given the number of different parties involved and the tensions inherent in the militantly secular domestic program espoused by Yisrael Beytenu and the more traditional religious parties.

Though both Likud and HaMachane haTziyoni had firmly ruled out a grand coalition last week, this week Likudnik and current Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon appeared to open the door to such a collaboration. With the above numbers, the two parties together would have 47 seats. With Yesh Atid and Kulanu, a viable coalition could be formed.

However, this, too, would have its inherent instabilities, and appears unlikely for other reasons. For one thing, who would be the prime minister?

Ya’alon insisted that Likud would not accept HaMachane haTziyoni’s Yitzhak Herzog as PM, and also discounted any power-sharing arrangement under which Netanyahu would be prime minister for two years and Herzog for the other two. Such an arrangement would in any event probably cause the break-up of HaMachane haTziyoni, since such an agreement already exists between Herzog and his co-chair Tzipi Livni, who would be frozen out. Quite a few Laborites might join Livni in the opposition, so much do they detest Netanyahu, which would probably obviate the exercise.

This is going to be a very interesting election.