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Polls show Sa’ar at 15-18 seats, remaking map and possibly unseating Netanyahu

A day after he announced his departure from Likud and the formation of a new political party to challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the country’s leadership, Gideon Sa’ar was off to an extraordinarily strong start Wednesday. Polls on Israel’s three major news networks forecast his nascent New Hope party getting between 15 and 18 seats if the country goes to elections — shaking up the political landscape and introducing several potential paths to coalitions that do not include Netanyahu, while seriously narrowing the premier’s path to leading the next government.

A notable caveat in reading these polls is that the parties are far from set for the elections shaping up to take place in March. Additional new parties, as well as splits and mergers of existing ones, will no doubt be coming as the nation gears up for its fourth vote in two years — and polls will fluctuate accordingly.

What’s more, the elections are not yet certain: A Knesset committee on Wednesday advanced a bill to dissolve parliament and set a March 16, 2021 election date, but the bill must still clear three readings in the plenum, and Netanyahu and his Blue and White partner-rival Benny Gantz could yet agree a compromise to stave off a return to the polls.

Still, Sa’ar’s entry into the race has painted a picture of a starkly changed political climate.

First, all three of Wednesday’s surveys showed Blue and White, a one-time challenger for the country’s leadership and the center-left’s greatest hope for retaking power in years, collapsing from its current 14 seats to 6 or 7. (Blue and White won 33 seats in the March 2020 elections, but it split when Gantz joined the coalition, with its Yesh Atid and Telem factions going into the opposition.)

More significantly, the surveys indicated that Netanyahu’s so-called right-wing bloc, comprised of Likud, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism, would fail to win a majority of 61 seats if elections were held today, upending months of surveys that had shown the four parties passing that threshold easily.

According to a survey by Kan news, if new elections are called, Likud will receive 25 seats (down from the 36 it won in March), followed by Sa’ar’s party with 18 and Naftali Bennett’s national-religious Yamina with 17 seats.

Bennett’s poll numbers have recently soared as he criticizes the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Sa’ar’s entry to the ring seems likely to eat into Yamina’s support.

Trailing Yamina in the Kan poll was the opposition Yesh Atid-Telem with 15 seats, the majority-Arab Joint List with 11 and the ultra-Orthodox Shas with 8 seats. Fellow Haredi UTJ party would get 7 seats, as would Blue and White. MK Avigdor Liberman’s right-wing secularist Yisrael Beytenu party and the left-wing Meretz would each receive 6 seats.

The bloc of Likud, Yamina, Shas and UTJ combined for 57 seats in the Kan poll, leaving the premier short of a 61 majority without Sa’ar.

According to separate polls by Channels 12 and 13, Sa’ar’s party was forecast to receive 16 and 15 seats, respectively.

Channel 12 put Netanyahu’s bloc at 60 seats, versus 58 in the Channel 13 poll.

Netanyahu could form a government if Sa’ar’s party were to join him, but the prime minister’s arch-rival appears to have no such plans. Though others have vowed not to sit with Netanyahu in the past only to reverse course, the enmity between the two runs deep, and Sa’ar’s fiery critique of the premier Tuesday would appear to make such an eventuality highly unlikely.

On the other hand, several combinations that do not include Likud are possible. For example, two of the three polls showed Sa’ar’s New Hope, Yamina, Yesh Atid-Telem, Yisrael Beytenu and Blue and White would together have enough for a 61 or 63 seat majority (though it remains unclear whether those parties could agree on a prime ministerial candidate and overcome significant policy disagreements between them).

Other combinations involving the ultra-Orthodox parties are also possible, and those parties’ loyalty to Netanyahu would likely be in question if it meant relegation to the opposition.

It is also not clear that Yamina would still consider itself to be in Netanyahu’s bloc, having spent its past six months in the opposition lambasting his leadership during the pandemic and pushing party leader Bennett as the better choice for Israel’s next prime minister.

Netanyahu had flirted with new elections ever since entering into a coalition with Blue and White in May, as the latter party’s perceived betrayal of its voters to join Netanyahu sank it in polls, while the premier’s Likud grew ever stronger.

Many surveys in the coalition’s early months showed Netanyahu’s bloc easily winning 65 going on 70 seats that would allow him to pursue his agenda unhindered by centrists. It would also potentially enable him to pursue legislation to protect him from the criminal charges for which he now stands trial. (Though the prime minister has vehemently denied planning such legislation if it were politically possible, few commentators have taken him at his word).

But recent months have seen Netanyahu’s power in the polls erode. Though his bloc continued to enjoy a majority in surveys, Bennett’s Yamina shot up as his criticism of the government he was no longer a part of grew, and he and his party increasingly said it was time Netanyahu was replaced as Israel’s leader.

Still, there seemed to be no feasible combination of parties that could form a government without Likud, giving Netanyahu leverage — but Sa’ar’s entry into the race may have changed that.

The popular Sa’ar announced Tuesday he was leaving Likud to form a new party, declaring his goal of replacing Netanyahu as prime minister. He submitted his resignation from the Knesset on Wednesday and later picked up support from Derech Eretz lawmakers Yoaz Hendel and Zvi Hauser, who said they would join his party.

His announcement came as fresh elections appear to be on the horizon, with the coalition’s Blue and White party advancing a bill to dissolve the Knesset, and a December 23 deadline to pass a budget or also automatically go to elections swiftly approaching.

Channel 12 also asked respondents how they would vote if maverick Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton and former IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot join Sa’ar’s party, as reports have suggested they may.

In such a scenario, Sa’ar’s party would grow to 22 seats and Likud would pick up 26.

If Sa’ar were to team up with Bennett’s Yamina, the combined slate would get 32 seats, with Likud remaining steady at 26, according to the network.

The TV polls also asked who is best suited to be prime minister.

In the Channel 12 survey, Netanyahu led with 29 percent of respondents, followed by Sa’ar with 16%, Bennett with 13% and opposition Leader Yair Lapid, who heads Yesh Atid-Telem, with 10%. Only 5% said Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who leads Blue and White and also holds the post of alternative prime minister as part of his power-sharing deal with Netanyahu.

Thirty-one percent of respondents to the Channel 13 poll said Netanyahu, 16% Sa’ar, 12% Bennett, 12% Lapid and 8% Gantz.

Kan’s poll asked separately who was best suited to be prime minister between Netanyahu and Sa’ar and Netanyahu and Bennett. In the first scenario, 40% of respondents said Netanyahu and 32% said Sa’ar. When Netanyahu was paired with Bennett, 39% said the premier, opposed to 25% who said Bennett.

The Channel 12 survey was conducted by pollster Manu Geva and included 502 respondents, with a 4.4% margin of error.

Channel 13’s poll, done by Kamil Fuchs, had 1,106 respondents and a 3.5% margin of error.

The Kan survey was made up of 550 respondents, with a 4.4% margin of error.

Header: Likud MK Gideon Sa’ar speaks at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, February 19, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Source: Alexander Fulbright – TOI