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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.

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There is some speculation that Netanyahu’s decision to call early elections signals that he will postpone any Israeli strike on Iran, which he has been threatening for months, as he would be loath to give up what is generally regarded as an unchallengeable bid for reelection

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Security, but not peace

While Netanyahu has kept up a consistent push for action on Iran, however, critics fault him for letting another key security issue, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, fall by the wayside, which they say could ultimately undermine Israel’s security.

“Although it’s true that Israelis haven’t been as at risk at violence in the last couple of years, Netanyahu is sort of building this security on a house of sand because it’s really premised on the Palestinian Authority continuing to assist Israel’s occupation in the West Bank,” says Peter Beinart, editor of the blog Open Zion and a prominent critic of Israeli government policies.

“The lack of willingness to move seriously toward a potential end to the occupation only strengthens those people in the Middle East who want to do Israel the most harm.”

The stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, which haven't made any headway in four years, has led some to call on the Palestinian Authority – originally outlined in the 1993 Oslo Accords as a interim body – to step aside instead of giving a Palestinian facade to Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

“Do not let Prime Minister Netanyahu hide behind the fig leaf of the Palestinian Authority – impose upon him, once again, the responsibility for the fate of 4 million Palestinians," wrote Oslo architect Yossi Beilin in an open letter this spring.

Diskin argues that Netanyahu initially took a relatively "dovish" approach in his second term, breaking from campaign rhetoric to declare his support for the first time for a two-state solution in a June 2009 speech at the conservative Bar Ilan University and then agreeing to an 10-month freeze on Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. 

The turning point, says Diskin, came when no concrete results came from the settlement freeze, which Netanyahu and his supporters have consistently blamed on Palestinians’ unwillingness to negotiate. Since then, the Palestinians failed in their Sept. 2011 bid to upgrade their status at the United Nations – yet another one of the challenges that Netanyahu has ridden out during his three-year term.

For most of Israel's Jews, the Palestinian question is largely out of mind as they focus on more pressing concerns about the spike in housing and food costs, the rise of Islamist powers in the neighborhood, and the threat posed by Iran. While many Israelis may not feel an affinity for Netanyahu, polls consistently show that they see him as far and away the best man to keep them safe at this time. 

“Apparently so far he did quite well,” says Diskin. “I hope that either his ability or luck will continue in his most probable third term.”

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