TEL AVIV—Former Prime Minister
has a small advantage over his rivals in Israel’s leadership race, the last polls before Tuesday’s election show, but a deadlock in the fifth ballot in three years is also a likely outcome.
Following the collapse of the government in the summer, Israelis must decide between a record third stint as premier for Mr. Netanyahu, or returning to the unique, unwieldy coalition of left-wing, centrist, right-wing and Arab parties that defeated him in 2021.
Friday’s polls—the final ones that can be published under Israeli law—gave Mr. Netanyahu a slight edge over his top rival, Prime Minister Yair Lapid. No party is expected to win an outright majority, but Messrs. Netanyahu and Lapid have allies with whom they would be expected to form a governing coalition.
Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party was projected to win 30 seats, according to the poll by news organization Israel Hayom. His bloc of right-wing and religious allies was projected to win 61 seats in total, just enough for a majority of Israel’s 120-seat Parliament.
Mr. Lapid’s Yesh Atid party was projected to win 25 seats in the same poll, and his anti-Netanyahu bloc would get 59 seats.
However, another poll Friday by Israeli daily Maariv showed Mr. Netanyahu and his rivals in a deadlock with 60 seats each.
Friday’s polls broadly aligned with other recent surveys that showed Mr. Netanyahu and his supporters gaining a slim majority, or falling just short.
If Messrs. Lapid or Netanyahu pull off forming a coalition, their government is likely to be fragile. Any lawmaker would have leverage bring down the government if their demands weren’t met.
Mr. Netanyahu held the country’s top seat from 2009 until last year, when his opponents joined forces to create a narrow coalition of 61 seats. That was the fourth election in a two-year period of political uncertainty kicked off by Mr. Netanyahu’s indictment on corruption charges in 2019, and defections from his slim governing coalition.
Mr. Lapid’s alliance is united only in their opposition to Mr. Netanyahu, who most of the coalition members believed shouldn’t be allowed to run the country while standing trial for corruption charges. Mr. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing.
Mr. Netanyahu has campaigned against the last government, the first in Israel’s history to include an independent Arab party, saying it included members sympathetic to terrorists. The coalition fell apart in under a year as members clashed over policies related to West Bank settlements, Palestinians and questions of religion and state.
With the camps neck and neck, the election is likely to be decided over which side can best increase their voter turnout. Mr. Netanyahu has the advantage, political analysts say, because all four parties in his bloc are slated to comfortably win 3.25% of the vote—a threshold for having seats in Parliament. Votes for parties that get less than 3.25% are discarded.
Three parties in the anti-Netanyahu bloc are hovering near that political danger zone, according to the Israel Hayom poll. If any of them fail to make it into Parliament, Mr. Netanyahu’s bloc would be certain to command a majority.
Even if there are 61 lawmakers that oppose Mr. Netanyahu after the election, Mr. Lapid would still struggle to form a coalition. He would need to rely on support from Arab parties, but his allies say they would refuse to sit with the alliance because of those parties’ Palestinian nationalist character.
Mr. Netanyahu’s bloc is united; he is its undisputed leader and it largely share the same ideology. In a government with a narrow majority, Mr. Netanyahu would be flanked by Religious Zionism’s co-head Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right lawmaker whose party gets 15 seats in the Israel Hayom poll, and 14 in the Maariv poll. Mr. Ben-Gvir has pushed for the use of lethal force against Palestinians who use violence during protests, and advocated for deporting individuals who seek to undermine the Jewish character of Israel.
In the event of a deadlock, Israeli defense minister
could be the biggest winner. His National Unity party, now a mix of centrist and right-wing lawmakers, including some senior defectors from the Likud party, is slated to receive 11 or 12 seats, according to the polls from Israel Hayom and Maariv respectively.
Mr. Gantz has positioned himself as the only candidate who can bridge the divide between Mr. Netanyahu and his rivals. In the event of a deadlock, he could accept an offer by Mr. Netanyahu to go first in a rotation government, or continue as defense minister in Mr. Lapid’s transitional government, as the country prepares for a sixth round of elections.
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