Netanyahu Falls Behind Election Rival Despite Congress Speech

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks after reading from the Book of Esther, during a religious ceremony performed on the Jewish holiday of Purim, in a synagogue in Jerusalem March 5, 2015. Ammar Awa/REUTERS

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party is two seats behind its main election rival with just over a week to go before the crunch vote, as his controversial Washington speech fails to translate into notable domestic political gains, according to a new poll.

The poll, conducted for The Jerusalem Post and Maariv News by Panels Research, showed that if Israelis went to the polls today, the opposition Zionist Union, led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, would gain 24 seats in the Knesset, the Irsaeli parliament, to Likud's 22.

A poll conducted immediately after Netanyahu's speech by the same research company predicted 23 seats for the Zionist Union and 22 for Likud in the March 17 vote, showing that the Herzog's Zionist Union had retrieved a seat in the days following the speech.

However, Avraham Diskin, professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem says that, while Netanyahu is not witnessing an upturn in the polls ahead of the election, what is crucial is who can form the largest coalition, with 60 seats or more needed out of the Knesset's 120.

The right-wing parties within Israel, such as economy minister Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party, hold almost enough to form a majority coalition government with Netanyahu's Likud, adds Diskin.

"There is usually a big difference between what we have in the public opinion polls and on election day," he says. "It doesn't really matter what party comes first [in the polls], what matters is the possibility to form coalitions."

"If the Right has a majority, it doesn't really matter if the Zionist camp is ahead even by five seats because there is a majority for a coalition led by Netanyahu."

In his speech to the U.S. Congress on Tuesday, the Israeli leader spoke at length of the international negotiations surrounding Iran's nuclear programme. He warned of Tehran's "three tentacles of terror" on Israel's borders, referring to its "goons in Gaza, its lackeys in Lebanon" and its "revolutionary guards on the Golan Heights".

"Backed by Iran, Assad is slaughtering Syrians. Backed by Iran, Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq," he warned. "Backed by Iran, Houthis are seizing control of Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea," he said.

In reaction to the speech, opposition leader Herzog condemned the remarks as ineffective because Netanyahu has damaged Israel's relationship with the U.S., isolating it on the world stage.

"There is no doubt the prime minister knows how to speak well, but the truth is that the speech, as impressive as it was, did not prevent a nuclear Iran and won't impact a deal that is being drafted – not on its content, nor on its timetable," Herzog said. "The painful truth is that after all the applause, Netanyahu is alone and Israel is isolated, and the negotiations will continue without Israel's input."

Likud officials were not available for comment when contacted but, in comments made to the Jerusalem Post, they said that the poll results were not disappointing as they show that Netanyahu could form a coalition government.