A new opinion poll shows that if Israel were to hold new elections today, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party would win with 30 seats in the 120-member Knesset, up from its current 19, putting the former television personality in line to be prime minister, while Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu would drop from 31 seats to 22. Naftali Bennett’s pro-settler Jewish Home party would gain three seats for a total of 15, while the Labor Party would drop two seats to 13. The poll of 510 respondents, released Thursday, was conducted by Panels Ltd. for the Knesset Channel.
A second poll, conducted by Maagar Mochot for Maariv and published Friday, gave Lapid 24 seats and Netanyahu 28. Bennett would rise to 13 and Shas to 12, while Labor would drop to 11 and Kadima would disappear.
Israelis could be forced to return to the ballot box this spring if Netanyahu fails to assemble a coalition by mid-March. President Shimon Peres could forestall new elections by tapping another candidate to try and form a coalition within two weeks after Netanyahu’s deadline runs out, but at present no such coalition seems likely.
At present, new elections are looking more likely than any other option. Since the January 22 elections Netanyahu has managed to sign one coalition deal, with the dovish Tzipi Livni and her six-seat Hatnuah party, promising Livni the Justice Ministry and control of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. To win a 61-seat majority he now needs to sign two of the next four largest parties—either Yesh Atid (with 19 seats), Labor (15), Jewish Home (12) or Shas (11). But under current conditions, any such combination is impossible, because no two parties have indicated any willingness to sit together. Here’s how the breakdown breaks down:
Yesh Atid’s Lapid and Jewish Home’s Bennett have formed an informal pact to enter a coalition or stay out as a bloc, based on their joint commitment to sweeping reforms in the ultra-Orthodox draft exemption. But Bennett has said he won’t join forces with Livni unless she drops her support for a two-state peace, her sole election goal, which his party opposes. Netanyahu is known to hope he can break the Lapid-Bennett pact and recruit Lapid together with the moderately dovish Shas, but Lapid has vowed not to sit with Shas unless it accepts the sweeping draft reform that Shas rejects. Compromise draft formulas have been floated that could conceivably bridge the Lapid-Shas gap, given enough concessions to both on other fronts, but while some Shas spokesmen have flirted with compromise, they’re widely seen as unlikely to break with the ultra-hardline Ashkenazi Haredi rabbis of United Torah Judaism, which rejects any draft of yeshiva students.
The third option, a coalition with Shas and the Labor Party, is also impossible at present. Labor leader Shelly Yachimovich has ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led coalition due to fundamental disagreements over social and economic policies.
As a last resort, Netanyahu could theoretically tear up his coalition agreement with Livni and bring in Lapid and Bennett together to form a fairly narrow coalition—62 seats between the three parties, plus the two seats of Shaul Mofaz’s rump Kadima—based on a platform of draft reform with no peace plank. However, Lapid has said he won’t join a coalition that doesn’t resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Alternatively, he could drop Livni and join forces with Bennett and Shas to form a hard-right coalition (presumably adding the 7-seat United Torah Judaism, which is even more rigidly opposed than Shas to a draft compromise). But Netanyahu is reluctant to form a hard-right coalition that he and his aides believe would alienate Washington and worsen Israel’s isolation from Europe. Besides, there’s that Bennett-Lapid pact to contend with.
How does Lapid square his commitment to Bennett with his commitment to peace negotiations? That’s the great mystery of Israeli politics right now. Given his enormous popularity, the remarkable skill he’s shown in assembling a diverse party list of talented newcomers and navigating the electoral process, everyone assumes he has something intelligible in mind. But no one has a clue what that might be.
In an indication of the national mood, Haaretz published two contradictory opinion articles yesterday one by left-leaning columnist Ari Shavit urging Lapid to drop his draft-reform rigidity and join a peace coalition, the other by occasional contributor and political scientist Amiel Ungar, a settler on the faculty of Ariel College in the West Bank, urging politicians not to break their campaign promises—a thinly veiled call on Lapid to stay with Bennett.
The Panels poll shows Meretz rising to 7 seats from its current 6, Shas dropping to 9 (from 11), United Torah Judaism dropping to 6 (from 7), Kadima holding steady at 2, the three Arab-backed parties dropping to 9 (from 11) and the far-right, Kahanist-leaning Otzma le-Yisrael entering the Knesset with 3 seats.
It should be noted that election polls in Israel are notoriously imprecise, largely due to the numerous variables introduced by the large number of parties and the relatively small samples, typically 500 respondents.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).