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Israel's 'unchallengeable' Netanyahu calls elections at prime moment (+video)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called early elections yesterday, appearing to count on his experience and high public support to ensure a third term.

By Staff writer / October 10, 2012

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference in Jerusalem on Oct. 9. Mr. Netanyahu announced on Tuesday he would seek an early Israeli election, a ballot that political commentators said would likely take place in January or February.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

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Jerusalem

Unlike President Obama, who has no control over when he gets to ask American voters if they would like him to stay on for another term, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can seek reelection whenever he wants – and he has chosen a plum moment.

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Mr. Netanyahu is being trumpeted as virtually unrivaled for Israel’s top post after he exercised his right yesterday to call early elections, which will likely be held in February. His relentless push to halt Iran’s nuclear program, together with his ability to maintain the status quo despite upheaval in the Arab world and a global financial crisis has consistently put him well ahead of other potential contenders – nearly all of whom lack the mix of experience and public support that Netanyahu enjoys.

“He is unchallengeable in terms of polling that shows he’s most suitable to be prime minister,” says public opinion expert Dahlia Scheindlin.

Indeed, since being elected to a second term in 2009, Netanyahu and his Likud party have drawn remarkably steady support from the public, rebounding quickly from any dips in approval, says Ms. Scheindlin.

Even when his approval rating fell from more than 50 percent to 29 percent during the summer, in part due to public dissatisfaction with the economy, he still commanded nearly double the support of the next closest contender, Shelly Yacimovich of the left-wing Labor party. 

Other potential contenders

Ms. Yacimovich, the steely daughter of Holocaust survivors from Poland who made her name in journalism, has been praised for her domestic policies since entering Israel’s rough-and-tumble political arena.

But she has no international experience – a serious deficiency in a country where security issues tend to trump all at the polls, especially amid the Iran nuclear threat. One article in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper asked mockingly, “Who knows how to play strategic poker against [Iran’s] ayatollahs? Shelly Yacimovich?"

The hunky former TV anchor Yair Lapid has likewise captured some attention after entering politics earlier this year with an Obama-esque message of hope for improving Israeli society, but he doesn’t even bother to talk about foreign policy.

The current opposition leader, Shaul Mofaz of the centrist Kadima party, has strong security credentials as a former defense minister and chief of staff for Israel’s military. But he lost credibility for briefly joining Netanyahu’s governing coalition and then leaving in less than three months.

Former opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who was soundly beaten by Mr. Mofaz in Kadima leadership elections this spring, has considerable experience but now finds herself outside the ring with very little time to get back in. Elections are widely expected to be held in February.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who previously served as prime minister from 1999 to 2001, prompted speculation in recent weeks about a potential reelection gambit when he appeared to distance himself from Netanyahu’s policies on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he enjoys very little public support.

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