Israel elections 101: Was early vote gambit riskier than Netanyahu wanted?

Israeli public opinion polls show Benjamin Netanyahu, who precipitated early elections, is favored to win a fourth term as prime minister. But support for him is falling, and he is vulnerable.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP/file
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting at Israel's parliament last week. A slew of challengers, including some of his traditional supporters, are taking aim at the prime minister, saying that after nearly nine years in office, it is time for a new face at the top.

At first glance, Benjamin Netanyahu seems a lock to win a fourth term as prime minister as Israel embarks on a surprise early election. Polls show that the public views him as the most qualified candidate and that voter sentiment is tilting decidedly toward the country’s right-wing parties.

But the Israeli leader’s decision to go to the voters rather than continue working with a fractious coalition is turning out to be risky business. Mr. Netanyahu’s alliances with key politicians on the right – potential future partners – have frayed, and rivals to the left are keying on polls suggesting that the public is fatigued at the idea of four more years of his leadership.

According to a survey published by the Haaretz newspaper this month, Netanyahu’s approval rating dropped to 38 percent at the end of November, down from 50 percent at the end of August and 77 percent in the middle of last summer’s Gaza war.

Opponents are signaling they want to turn the vote into a referendum on Netanyahu, stirring memories of the 1999 election when he was ousted from the prime minister’s office after a bruising personal campaign.

The same Haaretz survey in November showed the public evenly divided over whether the Israeli prime minister should run again. A subsequent poll from Israeli television Channel 2, however, put those preferring that Netanyahu step aside at 65 percent.

“If you look at an electorate in such a mood, you expect change,” says Eyal Arad, an Israeli political consultant who worked with Netanyahu on his campaign in the 1990s.

Netanyahu now faces a two-headed rival in Tzipi Livni, his nemesis from the 2009 campaign, who joined forces Wednesday with Labor Party Chairman Isaac Herzog, who has already started to trot out slogans from the 1999 campaign that Israel has become “stuck” under the prime minister’s leadership on both economic and foreign policy.

As part of the coalition crisis that led to the early elections, Netanyahu fired both Ms. Livni from her Cabinet post as justice minister and Yair Lapid, the finance minister, saying he could “no longer tolerate an opposition inside the government.”

Speaking Thursday to a small gathering of media and activists at Likud headquarters, Netanyahu’s counterattack against Labor also recalled campaign themes from 15 years ago by charging an “unprecedented” media campaign against him and declaring “the left wing has united us.”

What brought Netanyahu – known for being risk averse – to take such a gamble?

Just 20 months after its inauguration, a coalition government that from the start was an awkward mash-up of pro-settler conservatives and secular moderates became too unwieldy. Formed initially to pass socioeconomic legislation to end entitlements for the ultra-Orthodox, the coalition eventually lost its ideological glue. In recent months partners wrangled over everything from a housing tax to a highly controversial law on Israel’s Jewish character.

“The prime minister woke up in the morning and found that his allies actually no longer consider him prime minister, only in title,” said Amit Segal, a political commentator for Channel 2 television news, in a conference call with reporters.

Netanyahu’s inability to calm the bickering eventually started to impact his public ratings, say analysts. Blaming Finance Minister Lapid, who's from the centrist Yesh Atid party, for insubordination over budget policy and for criticism of the frictions in US-Israel ties, the prime minister said in a press conference last week that he could no longer govern and urged voters to give him a new, stronger mandate. Elections are to be held in March.

The absence of any formidable rival for the top job, and polls showing a coalition of right wing and religious parties getting a majority of the parliament’s 120 seats, suggested that calling early elections would resolve the situation. And, with no peace negotiations on the horizon, most of the public concurs with his allegation that the Palestinian Authority is responsible for the impasse.

“If you line up all the candidates for prime minister, he still comes out on top. He’s still the most credible leader for peace and security,’’ said Jonathan Rhynhold, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University. “Relatively speaking he’s in the lead, in absolute terms he’s in decline. It’s true his standing is not what it once was.”

Netanyahu is likely to emphasize his experience leading Israel through a period of rising instability in the Middle East, but he has developed a weakness on the core issue he rode to power – being tough on terror. A negotiated cease-fire with Hamas that followed the 50-day Gaza war left many Israelis frustrated and exposed him to attacks from hawks and others that he did not make good on a pledge to oust Hamas. A growing wave of violence in Jerusalem has further injured his security credentials.

The public is also restless over socioeconomic policy. The perception is that Netanyahu’s governments have made little progress in easing Israel’s relatively high cost of living and surging real estate prices.

“There isn’t a perception among the voters that he has fixed or addressed their economic concerns. And on the security front, which is their leading issue, voters are concerned,’’ said Stephan Miller, an Israeli-American public opinion expert. “If it’s a referendum on Bibi’s accomplishments, it will be very difficult for him to succeed.”

Continues Miller, “Netanyahu’s bumper sticker is, ‘Don’t vote for the other guys, vote for me.’ He doesn’t have a positive message, a narrative, or a vision.”

Another echo of 1999: Netanyahu’s Likud party has been in turmoil in a way that recalls the exodus of top cabinet ministers from his government to parties that campaigned against him.

Moshe Kahlon, an economic reformer who helped slash cellphone fees, bolted ranks a year ago to set up an independent party. Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who runs his own party, parted ways with Likud after a joint run in the 2013 election.

“Likud is in a weak position. It was deserted in most of its popular names,’’ says Mr. Arad, the strategist. “Right now you don’t see a major party that is going to win a major portion of votes to be the main driver of a government. The coalition game is going to be ugly.”

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