JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely win in the upcoming parliamentary elections, with no serious contenders to replace him, according to opinion polls published by two major Israeli dailies on Thursday.
The polls in the Maariv and Haaretz dailies — the first conducted since Netanyahu this week ordered snap elections for early next year — showed his Likud Party in a solid position to lead the next government.
Together with Likud's traditional allies from the ranks of nationalist and religious Jewish parties, Netanyahu would likely lead a majority of 62 to 68 seats in the 120-member parliament. In contrast, centrist and dovish parties would hold fewer than 50 seats, while Arab parties, which have never been part of a governing coalition, would hold about 10, the polls predicted.
The surveys dealt a blow to former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is reportedly considering a political comeback and is widely seen as the only politician with a chance of unseating Netanyahu.
Olmert was forced to step down in 2009 in a corruption scandal, but after being cleared of the most serious charges against him, aides say he is exploring a return to politics.
Thursday's poll in Maariv said a party led by Olmert and his former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, would only win 10 seats, most of them taken from other centrist parties.
The Haaretz poll found that only 24 percent of Israelis would want Olmert as prime minister, compared with 58 percent favoring Netanyahu.
"If Netanyahu had any passing concerns yesterday about the possibility of Olmert's return, the poll shows that he needn't worry," commentator Mazal Mualem wrote in Maariv.
Israelis vote for parties, not individual candidates. The leader of the largest party is then usually asked by Israel's ceremonial president to become prime minister and cobble together a majority coalition in parliament.
While Netanyahu has been widely expected to cruise to re-election, Thursday's polls held a few surprises.
The centrist Kadima, which currently holds 28 seats in parliament, would tumble to just six or seven places, while the Independence Party, headed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, would win no more than two seats, according to the polls. Haaretz said only 15 percent of voters would want Barak, a one-time prime minister, back in the top job.
The rejuvenated Labor Party, led by a former television journalist Shelly Yachimovich promoting social welfare issues, would win 17 to 19 seats — more than double its current eight, the polls predicted.
Political newcomer Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid Party would win 11 to 17 seats, according to the polls. Lapid, also a former TV commentator, has portrayed himself as representing everyday middle class Israelis.
The Haaretz poll surveyed 501 people, and the Maariv poll surveyed 570 people. Both had a margin of error of about 4.5 percentage points.
Netanyahu this week ordered the new elections for early next year, roughly eight months ahead of schedule. The immediate reason for the vote is the current coalition's inability to pass a budget by a Dec. 31 deadline.
But analysts say that after nearly four years in office, Netanyahu believes the time is ripe to win another term, thanks to his popularity in the polls and the lack of a viable alternative.
Netanyahu is expected to formally disperse parliament next week and then set a date for the election in late January or early February.