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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.

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Perhaps Netanyahu’s most serious rival is Ehud Olmert, his predecessor and a staple presence on the political scene since the 1970s. Mr. Olmert, the son of an parliamentarian, was first elected to the Knesset in 1973 at the age of 28. Voters brought him back for seven consecutive terms. He also has a 10-year stint as Jerusalem mayor under his belt, as well as seven years of experience as a cabinet minister.

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But all those years in politics yielded numerous allegations of corruption charges, which forced Olmert to step down in 2009 in what was widely considered to be his final exit. Even before a slew of corruption scandals broke in 2007, his approval rating had dipped to a mere 3 percent after Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Olmert is now said to be mulling a potential comeback, a possibility that reportedly has senior Likud leaders worried, according to the prominent Israeli news website Ynetnews. 

Coalition politics 

In order to become prime minister, a politician must present a government with a majority of seats in the 120-seat Knesset – often a serious challenge in Israel’s fragmented political landscape, which has a plethora of small parties as well as a diverse spectrum of ideologies. It is extremely rare that one party will win a majority outright, so party leaders must enter into alliances with parties that often have very different agendas.

Netanyahu has put together – and held together – a center-right coalition that includes increasingly strong right-wing forces, such as the ultra-Orthodox Shas and nationalist Yisrael Beytenu parties.

Olmert, as a leader who has previously succeeded in forming a government with Shas and Yisrael Beytenu, may be one of the few who could challenge Netanyahu’s ability to put together a coalition.

Political scientist Avraham Diskin of the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya says the main question is whether right-wing parties can together win a majority in the election. They won 50 seats in the 2006 election and have since increased their bloc to 65 seats, just barely a majority of the 120-seat Knesset. While it’s possible they could lose that majority, Professor Diskin sees that as unlikely.

The second question, he says, is whether centrist voters will split their votes among a number of parties rather than working together to pull together a serious bloc of seats. Even if they were able to pull together 10 seats, however, he says it is “still very unlikely that they will form a coalition because Netanyhau will tempt the center party to join him.”

“It’s quite certain that he’s going to be the next prime minister,” he adds. 

What makes Netanyahu strong

Economic issues, including a spike in housing costs and the burden of an underemployed and rapidly expanding ultra-Orthodox sector, are expected to feature more prominently in this election, particularly after last year’s socioeconomic protests.

But even when voters say they care more about economics, they tend to vote largely along the lines of their positions on security, says Scheindlin. On that point, Netanyahu has won respect, if not love, from the public.

“I think that they like that he’s tough and uncompromising on the Palestinian issue. He reflects where most Israelis are – they think that this is not time for negotiations, and they think the status quo is feasible,” she says. “I don’t think they love his approach to Iran, but I think they see him as doing the right thing by making it such a central aspect of global affairs.”

While some have criticized Netanyahu of hammering the Iran issue for political gain, he has been remarkably consistent on that issue since even before his first term as prime minister, which ran from 1996 to 1999.

“To Netanyahu’s credit, he’s been arguing for many years that Iran is the most important issue,” says Aluf Benn, editor in chief of Haaretz and a longtime political correspondent for the paper.  “It’s not a gimmick that he came up with for the election.”

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