The race to be Israel’s next leader is too close to call according to latest opinion polls.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is battling to unify right-wing Israelis for a historic fifth term in office with under two weeks remaining to the historic elections on September 17.
According to a Midgam survey the Blue and White Party is edging his Likud Party by 32-31 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
A left-wing/centrist block would also yield 55 seats compared to right-wing/chareidim on 54.
A poll conducted by Maagar Mochot Institute has Blue and White leader Benny Gantz ahead 32-30 over the current leader, but a right-wing/chareidim would take 55 seats to left-wing/centrist at 54.
Gantz also trails Netanyahu by some distance as a preferred leader in both polls.
Netanyahu heads Gantz in the Midgam poll 39%-30% and holds a greater margin at 40%-24% with Maagar Mochot.
Gantz has been clear in his viewpoint that Netanyahu does not having a moral mandate to lead again due to upcoming corruption charges and police investigations over much publicised allegations.
But when it comes to the Charedi community, Gantz has been ambiguous to orthodox observers.
Speaking on TV News13 earlier this week about Chareidi parties in a future coalition government, Gantz noted the Sabbath was “the best thing” the Israeli nation had, but said everyone had a right to observe the day the way they felt.
“Man has to choose his way at any given moment,” he observed.
In terms of public transportation on a Shabbat, in areas where there is a demand that did not bother others, Gantz added that it would “be what it will be”.
He confirmed he would establish a nationalistic Zionist liberal coalition.
“I will set the basic guidelines,” Gantz explained. “I want a majority government containing (representation) of most of the people, which will address the minorities, the Chareidi minority, and the Arab minority. Everyone is an equal citizen.”
Asked if there would be Chareidim in the coalition, Gantz replied that the majority in Israel was secular, traditional and religious. And a Chareidi sector must be respected.
“The majority must act responsibly to represent what the majority would like, there is a great responsibility to be concerned with the minority,” he explained.
With pressure building on Netanyahu, Blue and White party chairman Yair Lapid slammed Israel’s current leader after he vowed to annex Jewish towns and villages in Judea and Samaria as it would be impossible due to the number of Palestinians living in the region.
“You can’t apply Jewish sovereignty just to the towns,” he told Israel Radio’s Channel 2.
Lapid, who is to rotate being Prime Minister with Gantz if their party win the election, added, “What Netanyahu’s comments mean is sovereignty over 2.9 million Palestinians and giving them National Insurance payments.
“Sovereignty is something that happens on the ground.”
Netanyahu made his announcement during a visit to an elementary school in Elkana in Samaria last Sunday.
The school is to be named after his brother, Jonathan, who died at Entebbe in 1976.
“We are building new homes here,” Netanyahu explained. “This is a new home that is an old home. This is the old, original home of the Jewish people and we will build more in Elkana.
“We will not uproot anyone here. There will be no more Gush Katif, there will be no more uprooting, and with God’s help we will apply Jewish sovereignty over all communities as part of the land of Israel and the State of Israel.”
Likud MK and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein praised Netanyahu’s announcement.
“Applying sovereignty is an application of our historical right and also sends an important message to all terror organizations seeking to uproot our presence throughout the Land of Israel,” he said.
Bennett also welcomed Netanyahu’s election pledge.
Meantime, the Zehut Party is backing Netanyahu’s bid after overwhelmingly accepting a deal with Likud to drop out of the race.
Moshe Feiglin has been offered a cabinet post in exchange for party support.
Likud will address Zehut’s expanded legalisation of medicinal marijuana and economic reforms.
Likud-Zehut announced the agreement at the end of at Maccabiah Village in Ramat Gan.
“We are embarking on a joint path to promote values of personal freedom and free economy,” said Netanyahu. “The root of the proposal which Moshe presented me and with which I absolutely agree with is to open the (medical cannabis) market for import.
“I see you as a Minister in my government, these are not just words, I really mean it.”
Feiglin said, “There is great news for the free and private market, the cost of living, especially for small business owners in Israel, would be lowered.
“For two years, any new business with a turnover of up to NIS 2 million will not pay income tax until it has made enough to offset its establishment.”
He continued, “The decision will lead us to achieving Zehut’s agenda from inside the government and the Knesset, and in the future towards the building of a party that is important to us ahead of future challenges.”
Right-wing candidates called on voters to turn out in force at a conference at the Ramada Hotel in Jerusalem earlier this week.
Yemina head Ayalet Shaked voiced concern over voters not recognising the importance of elections and the importance of an ideological right to be strong.
She also noted small parties in Israel historically are weakened on election day.
Speaking at an economic conference in Tel Aviv, Shaked claimed Likud were preparing the ground bring Gantz into the coalition but he would not be Prime Minister.
“We will recommend Netanyahu (to form a government) and I hope he will form a government with us. History has proven that he first talks with the left-wing parties.”
Shaked, who is against a Likud-Blue and White coalition, called on Netanyahu to build the right-wing bloc, instead of attacking “natural partners.”
Late last week, she called on Netanyahu to cease his campaign against Yamina and enlarge the right-wing bloc.
“Netanyahu’s attacks on us in the previous elections prevented the right-wing bloc from having a 61-seat majority,” she exclaimed. “Netanyahu, don’t repeat the same mistake.”
Moving on to Netanyahu harming Israeli democracy by attacking the legal system and media, the former Justice Minister noted Israel was part of an exclusive club of 21 countries founded as democracies.
“We have a strong legal system and free media, so any cries to the contrary are excessive,” she exclaimed.
Naftali Bennett, Yemina, called on right-wing voters to vote only for parties who can pass the electoral threshold.
“If you stay at home, or vote for parties that aren’t certain to reach the electoral threshold, we won’t win,” he said.
Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Yemina, described Otzma as having “zero” chances of success.
“The greatest threat to the Right is that it throws votes into the trash,” he said.
And Itamar Ben-Gvir, Otzma Yehudit, said Likud could only win with his party.
Yehudit has increased its vote to 2.9% of the electorate but are short of the 3.25 percent threshold required to enter the Knesset.
Netanyahu reportedly offered Ben-Gvir a deal to withdraw in exchange for lowering the electoral threshold to reduce the risk of “wasted” votes which occurred a few months ago.
It is believed Ben-Gvir made demands at a meeting, including Likud headquarters in Judea and Samaria working with Yehudit.
He later denied the report, informing Israel’s Army Radio he had not received a proposal from Likud.
“There was no deal and there won’t be one,” he said.
Meanwhile, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party has dipped to nine seats from 11 in a latest poll but it is anticipated he will have a major say in the make-up of a new coalition.
Liberman, who favours a national unity government with Likud and Blue and White, reportedly angered Netanyahu after discussing options of replacing him with senior Likud MKs if the party fails to secure 61 seats,
“The time will come to replace the Likud nominee for forming a coalition,” said Liberman.
He added, “It’s unbelievable that those who so recently signed a declaration of loyalty to Bibi are so eager to get rid of him.
“In their estimation, at least two-thirds of the party is praying that Netanyahu does not get 61 seats. If this situation does indeed arise, they are adamant they will not take part in dissolving the Knesset again and heading into yet another election.
“If the situation does call for it, they will be able to change leadership at the earliest given opportunity. They claim the Likud will be able to choose different leadership to form a government without going through the hassle (of elections). As for a permanent chairman, they will need to conduct primaries once the government is established.”
Netanyahu lambasted his former cabinet minister.
“If you vote for Liberman, you vote for a government under Gantz and Lapid, is that what you want?” he said.
Netanyahu also noted he is best placed to lead Israel when US President Donald Trump unveils his much-anticipated Middle East peace plan after the elections.
“Who do you want to negotiate with Trump over the deal of the century – me at the head of a right-wing government, or Gantz and Lapid?” he noted.
In other election news, Ehud Barak’s Democratic Israel party and Labor’s Stav Shaffir said Netanyahu’s days in office were numbered.
“Israel’s image as a democratic country is at stake, these are the most important elections in decades,” he said. “This government of criminal suspects needs to be replaced by a true democratic government, one that will determine Israel’s image as it was written in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. That is the only way for a truly democratic country.”
Moshe Gafni rebuffed concerns that UTJ is concentrates on Chareidi matters only.
“I worry about all Israeli citizens,” Gafni told delegates at the Manufacturers’ Association Conference in Tel Aviv.” When something is negative for the secular community, it is negative for the Chareidi community many times over.”
Gafni noted that he had passed 12 laws last term.
“Not even one of them was intended for the needs of the Chareidi community,” he confirmed.
Gafni also found time to criticise Liberman.
“We must establish a government after these elections,” he explained. “It’s not possible for a country like Israel not to work for a full year. The Knesset is an important economic tool and I have a slew of issues to bring to the table. We were forced to vote on the dissolution of the Knesset because there was someone who said he would join Bibi and went back on his word, (Avigdor) Liberman.”
“You can’t be so hypocritical, to support us and then suddenly change direction,” Gafni added. “He says something and then does the opposite. I can’t tell you that I would never join Liberman again because tomorrow he’ll be with us again, with the Chareidim. When I spoke with him, he was extremely supportive of us.”
Gafni also said Gantz made a mistake linking with Lapid in Blue & White.
“We won’t be together with him (Lapid) under any circumstances,” he explained. “All his views and statements about Israel as a Jewish and democratic state are against what we believe in.”
Elsewhere, Agudas Yisrael MKs Yaakov Litzman and Meir Porush and MKs Yisrael Eichler and Yaakov Tessler visited northern Israel on the campaign trail.
“All development of the Chareidi community in Haifa is dependent on our success nationwide,” he said. “If we do not have enough mandates we will return to the opposition and then Haifa will be in danger too, there will be nothing. No apartments, no infrastructure, no Yiddishkeit, and nothing from the city”.
The quartet went on to visit Afula, Nof HaGalil, Tiberias, Chatzor and Tzefat.
Litzman was also reportedly heard on tape during a closed meeting last weekend stating he would ony enter a coalition with assurances over Shabbat observance.
“If we protect Shabbos, Shabbos will protect us and there will be quiet once again,” he noted.
Litzman added at a meeting in Tiberias his party would recommend Netanyahu but it was “uncertain” what would occur until the elections.
By Adam Moses