Israel's 'unchallengeable' Netanyahu calls elections at prime moment

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

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

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.

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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