Israel: Benjamin Netanyahu’s future in the balance as US goes to polls

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: Getty
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: Getty
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POLLS show Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sweeping to power for another term in January elections but his victory is far from assured.

Specifically, Mr Netanyahu, who was elected in 2009 as head of a hard-line coalition and who has made confronting the threat of a nuclear Iran his key policy, still faces uncertainties that could erode his right-wing bloc’s lead.

The Right, which favours a tough stance towards Palestinians, would take 68 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset if elections were held now, according to a recent Haaretz poll. But question marks for Mr Netanyahu include a possible comeback by former premier Ehud Olmert, the US elections next month, and whether the campaign will stoke a resurgence of resentment about the growing gap between rich and poor in Israel.

A Jerusalem Post poll last Friday showed that Mr Olmert, recently cleared of most of the corruption allegations that forced him from office four years ago, could defeat Mr Netanyahu if he stood as head of a centre-left bloc. No other politician, including the Labour leader Shelly Yacimovich or Kadima party head Shaul Mofaz is anywhere near challenging Mr Netanyahu.

“It is likely Netanyahu will win, but it is not certain that the whole thing is wrapped up,” says Leslie Susser, diplomatic editor of the Jerusalem Report. “Netanyahu sees Olmert as the big threat in these elections.”

In Mr Susser’s view, re-election of Barack Obama as US president next month could also be politically challenging for Mr Netanyahu since he has poor relations with the US leader and the Israeli electorate tends to punish leaders seen as worsening ties with Israel’s leading ally.

Mr Obama’s re-election could also lead to unwelcome pressure on the Palestinian issue, which in diplomatic terms has been frozen during Mr Netanyahu’s tenure. Mr Olmert negotiated intensively with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas over issues in dispute such as Jerusalem, borders and refugees.

Mr Netanyahu took a swipe at Mr. Olmert, who launched devastating military operations against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 and against Hamas in Gaza in 2008, during a speech on Monday just before the Knesset voted to dissolve itself. “We didn’t initiate any unnecessary wars. There were no wars at all in my seven years as prime minister. The reason there were no wars is that we showed strength.” he said.

Mr Netanyahu’s given reason for calling the elections eight months ahead of schedule is that he did not have the votes to pass an austerity budget by the 31 December deadline. But he is also seen as having been anxious to cash in on his current popularity at the polls and deny Mr Olmert time to get organised.

His popularity stems from Israel’s security situation towards the Palestinians being seen as improved, the economy faring well compared to other countries, and the primacy he has given to the Iranian issue. “Netanyahu will do his utmost to keep the Iran issue at the top of the agenda,” says Hebrew University political scientist Tamir Sheafer. “The more afraid people are for security, the more they vote for the Right.”