Israeli polls show Netanyahu party narrowing gap behind Gantz

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right wing Likud party has reduced the gap behind the centrist party of former minister Benny Gantz, who quit the wartime unity government on Sunday, two polls showed on Friday.

The polls, for the left wing Ma'ariv daily and the right wing Israel Hayom newspaper, showed Likud winning 21 seats behind the National Unity Party on 24. The Ma'ariv poll last week showed Gantz's party on 27 seats, while at the start of the year, it was regularly polling in the high 30s.

The Ma'ariv poll shows the current ruling coalition winning 52 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, against 58 for the main opposition parties, with the balance of 10 seats held by the United Arab List and the left-wing Hadash-Ta'al alliance.

The Israel Hayom poll put the coalition on 50 seats against 61 for the opposition parties and 9 for the UAL and Hadash-Ta'al.

Both polls showed a majority of voters would prefer Gantz as prime minister in a head-to-head choice with Netanyahu. However the Israel Hayom poll showed that if former prime minister Naftali Bennett were to join forces with Avigdor Liberman and Gideon Saar, two other centre right politicians from outside the Likud camp, their alliance could beat both Likud and Gantz's National Unity Party.

Gantz, a former army general and defence minister in the last government, joined Netanyahu's coalition last year as a gesture of national unity following the devastating attack by Hamas on Oct 7.

However he clashed repeatedly with other ministers and quit the government after demanding Netanyahu articulate a clear strategic plan for the war in Gaza, now in its ninth month.

Netanyahu, who was widely blamed for the security failures that allowed the Oct. 7 attack to take place, has refused to call early elections and would not normally face voters until 2026 if his coalition with a clutch of religious and right wing pro-settler parties holds.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Ros Russell)