Jerusalem — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tie-up with far-right coalition partner Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman could backfire by eroding their lead ahead of Israel’s Jan. 22 ballot, a poll said on Friday.
The findings flew in the face of Netanyahu’s prediction that, by merging with his fiery rival for nationalist votes, he would muster a “big, cohesive force” of support to win a third term as premier.
They also suggested that opposition parties, long dawdling thanks to Israel’s stable economy and disillusionment with the deadlocked Palestinian peace process, would be reenergised by the conservative incumbent’s tack toward the Lieberman tent.
According to a survey published by top-rated television station Channel Two, the joint candidate list of Netanyahu’s Likud and Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu parties, announced on Thursday, would take just 33 of the 120 seats in parliament.
Though that still puts them ahead of rival parties, it represented a drop-off from Monday, before the unexpected alliance was unveiled, when a poll for parliament’s television station Knesset 99 gave them a combined 39 seats.
“Unifying lists usually shrinks them,” commented Nahum Barnea of the biggest-selling newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
“Anyone who did not tolerate Lieberman and voted for Netanyahu will think twice, and the same is true for those who did not tolerate Netanyahu and voted for Lieberman.”
Friday’s poll also found boosted support for Israel’s strongest opposition parties, left-leaning Labour and the new, centrist Yesh Atid. They were seen taking 27 and 18 seats, respectively, up from the 19 and 15 predicted on Monday.
“WE’LL LEAD FOR YEARS”
Reasons analysts gave for that shift included worry among wavering Israelis about the rise of the Soviet-born Lieberman, an often undiplomatic diplomat who faces possible indictment on graft charges - though he denies wrongdoing.
His party has questioned the loyalty of Israel’s Arab minority and promoted legislation that critics denounced as an undemocratic targeting of liberal causes, such as a move to slap a 45 percent tax on foreign donations to human rights groups.
“The strong Russian accent, the police probes and the old left’s fear of the man who doesn’t believe in peace painted him in one stripe,” said Netanyahu ex-spokesman Yoaz Hendel, adding that he believed much of the public had misjudged Lieberman.
The foreign minister brushed off Friday’s poll, telling reporters Israel Beiteinu’s own surveys anticipated it would win 16 seats in the next Knesset - up from today’s 15.
“We are setting up the broad-based, traditional, historic nationalist camp that will lead the country for many years,” he said. A Likud spokeswoman declined to comment on poll figures.
Netanyahu and Lieberman said their partnership will ditch some of the fractious small-party wrangling typical of Israeli politics and help the country attend to security challenges like Iran’s nuclear programme, as well as domestic problems.
The secularist Lieberman is also pushing to end en masse exemptions granted to Israeli Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews from compulsory national service.
While Channel Two projected an even 60-60 seat split between coalition and opposition in the next parliament, most commentators agreed that the latter were unlikely to build on that strength by uniting to offset the Netanyahu-Lieberman list.
“There is no agreed-upon (opposition) leader and no consensus, and almost no union seems possible there,” wrote Shalom Yerushalmi of Maariv daily. (Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Crispian Balmer)