Netanyahu expected to win re-election in Israel, but shifting politics cloud future

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 21, 2013 

WORLD NEWS MUBARAK 13 ABA

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

OLIVIER DOULIERY — Abaca Press/MCT

— With less then 24 hours before Israelis cast their ballots, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is widely expected to win another four-year term as the head of the government.

Questions, however, have begun to emerge over how this term will be different from his previous periods in office.

Current polls suggest that the next Parliament will have a very similar balance of power between Israel’s right- and left-wing groups, with some analysts arguing that Netanyahu has actually weakened his own Likud Party when he merged it with Israel Beiteinu, the party of Russian Jews, last year.

"Netanyahu had thought he would ride into the next Parliament with a huge victory that would define his history as Israeli premier," said one Likud member of Parliament, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on his party’s political dealings. "That is not going to be the case."

He cited a meeting three months ago at Likud headquarters when polls suggested that Netanyahu would win more than 40 of the 120 seats in the chamber.

"There was a lot of talk at that meeting that we could do things that were unheard of, that we would reach over 50 seats,” he said. “It was very heady."

At political events, Netanyahu spoke confidently of bringing lasting peace to Israel by making it a country that no other nation would dare attack. He talked about "strength" and "security" often during his campaign, and they remain words that voters repeat back in equal measures when explaining why they will support the premier again.

But in the months since, Netanyahu has rapidly lost steam in the polls, which currently place him with 33 seats – eight less then Likud and Israel Beiteinu currently hold. Many of those votes have been lost to Naftali Bennett, whose staunchly pro-settler party, Jewish Home, is expected to garner 14 seats, up from the five it currently holds.

Gil Hoffman, a political analyst at the Jerusalem Post, said that Netanyahu would likely have to strike a delicate balance in his coalition.

"The next government Netanyahu will form will have to be moderate because Netanyahu is scared of international pressure,” Hoffman said. “His battles ahead are not just against the ayatollah and Hezbollah, but against (President Barack) Obama, the EU (European Union) and the U.N."

To his left, Netanyahu is likely to place the Yesh Atid Party, led by former Israeli television anchor Yair Lapid. The son of a former Israeli member of Parliament, Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, the younger Lapid has run his campaign by demanding that "special treatment" no longer should be given to Israel’s ultra-orthodox, and that they should be forced to serve in the army and pay taxes identical to those of secular Israelis. He has also demanded that the government immediately revive peace talks with the Palestinians.

On his right, Netanyahu could place a constellation of religious nationalist parties, including the ultra-orthodox Shas movement, or Jewish Home. Neither of which has any ideological points in common with Yesh Atid.

"It could very well be a perfect mess," said a Netanyahu aide, who said the prime minister’s team is still pondering the makeup of the coalition. The aide spoke on condition of anonymity, not having been authorized to speak publicly for the prime minister. "It is not what we expected."

The composition of Netanyahu’s coalition could very well be determined by how Israel’s large bloc of undecided voters decides to cast its ballots. Some polls suggest that as many as 15 percent of voters are still unsure, with pollsters saying they are deliberating between Israel’s centrist and left-wing parties.

“It’s not like there is no center or left in Israel. It’s just that we have no one to vote for," said Sara Michaeli, a 28-year-old political science student at Ben-Gurion University in Tel Aviv. "If you aren’t right-wing or a settler, you had this miasma of political groups to choose from who basically stood for nothing."

Earlier this month, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni attempted to form a coalition between her Hatnua Party, the Labor Party and Yesh Atid. The union was supported by many, who said that because the parties had such similar views, it would simplify the choice for voters.

"In the end we couldn’t decide on a power-sharing agreement, so the whole thing fell apart," said a Labor member of Parliament who worked on the deal and on condition of anonymity, not having been authorized to speak publicly. "It was a shame, because it was the one thing that seemed to energize voters."

Dan Ephraim, a student who said he had voted for Labor twice in previous elections, said that the lack of a campaign strategy or stance on issues had convinced him to switch his vote to Netanyahu.

"At least you know what you get with him,” Ephraim said. “And at least he’s not the settlers."

Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: sfrenkel@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @sheeraf

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