Israelis know that they oughtn’t take political opinion polls too seriously, certainly not so long before an election, when nobody knows who exactly will be running. Nevertheless, a scenario poll broadcast Monday night on Israeli Channel 1 raised a tantalizing prospect: it is not impossible that a centrist, secular coalition could be on the cusp of winning an outright Knesset majority.
According to the Teleseker poll, if elections were held tomorrow, the Likud would collapse from 30 to 22 seats in the 120-seat parliament. Gaining at its expense, the Jewish Home party would rise from 8 to 13 seats; Yisrael Beitenu party would jump from 6 to 9. Yesh Atid would soar from 11 to 20–almost neck-and-neck with Likud. The Zionist Union–a merger of the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah–would implode from 24 to 9 seats. Likud spin-off Kulanu would also fall, from 10 to 6 seats. Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, as well as the Joint (Arab) List and left-wing Meretz, would retain their current levels of support. Intriguingly, a new party of former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon would claim 10 seats, if he were hypothetically to run with former Likud number two Gideon Sa’ar and former prime minister Ehud Barak on the list.
In such a scenario, Yair Lapid would be a viable contender for Israel’s next prime minister, with Yesh Atid’s 20 seats. To form a government, he would need another 41 seats in his coalition. If one adds Ya’alon’s 10, Yisrael Beitenu’s 9, the Zionist Union’s 9, and Kulanu’s 6, this possible alliance would have 54 seats, just 7 shy of a majority. This would still not be enough. Lapid could hypothetically form a government with the Jewish Home too (his bromance with Naftali Bennett from 2013 makes this not impossible), but the government would then have a definite right-wing tilt. If these polls were to materialize, Benjamin Netanyahu would probably remain prime minister: his present governing coalition would retain its majority. But this is not a foregone conclusion.
If the numbers were to shift just enough that Lapid had a plausible coalition, it is likely that the parties that could join his government would do so. Netanyahu has been prime minister for a decade now, and the knives are out. He is such a dominant force, that his rivals understand that he needs to be sidelined for them to progress. Ya’alon and Avigdor Liberman both covet the premiership; removing Netanyahu from power is a necessary first step, even if neither can benefit immediately. It is exceedingly unlikely that these power-brokers would agree to deliver Netanyahu to his fifth term if it were possible to declare the end of his political career.
Such an alliance would be broadly centrist and secular. It might hypothetically feature Ya’alon back in the Defense Ministry, Liberman back in the Foreign Ministry, Moshe Kahlon back in the Finance Ministry, and the Zionist Union perhaps with the Justice portfolio. Liberman is known internationally as a radical hardliner, but he is known at home as a surprisingly pragmatic and flexible politician–to Machiavellian standards. Ya’alon is certainly right-wing, but his support for the settlement enterprise is based on a security doctrine, not religious ideology. Like the short-lived Netanyahu government of 2013-2015, this coalition would be free of any parties desirous of religious coercion–and importantly, it wouldn’t contain any parties keen to appease the Haredi parties with a view to including them in a future government, as did the Likud.
As for the hypothetical party, Ya’alon announced at last week’s Herzliya Conference that he intended to run for the premiership in the next election, and is exploring founding his own party. Neither Sa’ar nor Barak–whose scathing criticisms of the prime minister at the conference raised suspicions that he was planning his own comeback–have said they would run with Ya’alon. Nevertheless, since another poll yesterday showed that 65% of the public did not want Barak to return to politics, his hypothetical presence on Ya’alon’s list is not the source of its support.
The fact that we are dealing with hypothetical parties possibly three years before an election means we should take these results with more than a pinch of salt. Yet as the saying goes, a week in politics is a long time. And in Israeli politics–anything can happen.