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Israel's Netanyahu banks on tough guy image to win early elections

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is campaigning in early elections, announced today for January, as the candidate with a proven record of keeping Israelis safe in turbulent times.

By Staff writer / October 16, 2012

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses European Union diplomats in Jerusalem on Tuesday, October 16.

Ammar Awad/Reuters

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Jerusalem

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come charging out of the gate with his reelection campaign, fashioning himself as a tough leader who is unrivaled in his ability to keep Israel safe and prosperous at a crucial time.

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“In less than 100 days the people of Israel will decide who will lead them in the face of the greatest security challenges we have known since the state was established,” said Mr. Netanyahu last night, hours before the Knesset voted to hold new elections Jan. 22. “In the seven years that I have served [including his previous 1996-99 term] there were no wars and there was a decrease in terror. There was no war because we projected strength.”

But critics contend that the relative stability and security Netanyahu has achieved through his tough policies could be undermined by his failure to address other issues, including Palestinian statehood aspirations, economic woes, and rising tensions between Israel’s secular Jews and its rapidly expanding ultra-Orthodox minority.

“After four years with Netanyahu, Israel is less Jewish and less democratic than ever before,” said Shaul Mofaz, the current opposition leader and a former defense minister, describing the country today as “weaker, more isolated, more divided, hungrier, and more frightened. This is not the Israel I know – this can’t be its image.” The comments, translated by the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, were also made before last night's vote. 

A steady hand

Since Netanyahu began his second term in the wake of Israel’s 2009 war with Hamas in Gaza, he has steered Israel through some dicey waters, including the blistering Goldstone Report that accused Israel of human rights abuses in Gaza; the fatal attack on a Turkish-supported flotilla challenging Israel’s blockade of Gaza in May 2010; the Arab Spring; and mounting concern about Iran’s nuclear program as it significantly added to its stockpile of enriched uranium.

“What [Netanyahu] said was … there were storms, and look at us, we’re doing very well,” says political scientist Abraham Diskin, professor emeritus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

He points out in particular Netanyahu’s influence on the Iran issue. While some say Israel has become more isolated under the tough-talking prime minister, Netanyahu has also largely succeeded in getting the widespread international support Israel sought for far-ranging sanctions against Iran.

“About Iran, of course he made many mistakes – maybe he was too tough at the time,” says Prof. Diskin, noting that even his Defense Minister Ehud Barak had publicly aired misgivings in recent weeks. “But internationally … he really had his way. Just yesterday, there was the EU decision to toughen sanctions … and I look at how both sides [in the US presidential race] are talking about that – they really compete on who is closer to Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli position. That is really the name of the game in US politics now.”

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