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

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

“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.

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“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.”

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

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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