On the fourth day of the recent war in Gaza, Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu hurried from one Jerusalem studio to another, doing more than a dozen TV interviews with networks from Hong Kong to New York within the space of 12 hours.
In each case, Netanyahu asked the host from where he or she was broadcasting, and then asked the question: What would your government do if your city came under rocket fire?
Netanyahu, the leader of the opposition, had met the day before with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and agreed to take on a major role in explaining Israel’s war against Hamas to the world. Just six weeks away from the February election, Netanyahu knew his bipartisanship would go down well with Israeli voters.
But just to make sure they noticed, he invited Israel’s Channel 2 TV news to document his contribution to the war effort.
The ploy—playing the statesman who is above politics while actually electioneering—helped Netanyahu, the front-runner in the race for prime minister, stay in the public eye. It kept Likud up in the polls, even though Netanyahu’s main political rivals—Kadima’s Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, and Labor’s Ehud Barak, the defense minister—were the ones actually conducting the popular war.
Then, when the cease-fire was announced Jan. 17, Netanyahu played his trump card, turning against the government and accusing it of wasting a golden opportunity to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza. The new message resonated with many Israelis across the country, and the few seats Netanyahu had lost during the war came back with interest.
Polls taken in the first week after the war showed the margin between Netanyahu’s Likud and Livni’s Kadima widening from a near tie to as many as eight or nine seats in Likud’s favor.
Netanyahu’s tough line on Hamas resonates in an Israel that has moved sharply to the right, as peace efforts and disengagement efforts have proven fruitless.
Both the Oslo process launched in 1993 and the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza are widely seen as major failures. The Oslo process and its culmination, the 2000 Camp David summit at which Yasser Arafat rejected a wide-ranging peace deal from Barak, is seen as having led to the wave of terrorism of the second intifada. Ariel Sharon’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza is seen as having led to Israel’s showdown with Hamas.
On the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu presents a two-pronged approach: economic sanctions and force if necessary to smash Hamas—a tougher line against Hamas than Kadima or Labor—and slowing down the peace process with President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
Netanyahu advocates first creating an “economic peace” with Palestinians in the West Bank as a necessary stage for creating conditions for political peace. He promises to use his economic expertise to help bring prosperity to the West Bank that ultimately will pave the way for peace.
Netanyahu also takes a tough line on Syria, insisting that there is no way his government would agree to withdraw from the Golan Heights.
His Achilles heel as a candidate is the fear among Israelis of a confrontation between a Netanyahu-led government unwilling to move on either the Palestinian or Syrian tracks and the new Obama administration in Washington. President Obama is keen on solving the Palestinian issue to improve America’s standing in the Middle East and prying Syria away from the radical Iranian axis through an Israeli-Syrian peace deal that entails returning the Golan.
Livni is playing on this fear, arguing that when Netanyahu was prime minister in the 1990s, he ran afoul of the Clinton administration and likely will do so again with Obama. If Netanyahu forms a government with the far right and refuses to move on peace, she warns that there will be an unavoidable rift with the United States, and Israel could find itself increasingly isolated in the international community.
One of Netanyahu’s problems as prime minister in the 1990s was the defection of powerful people around him, including Benny Begin on the right and Dan Meridor on the left. Now, to show that he has regained their respect, he has recruited both, as well as several “stars,” including former army Chief of Staff Moshe “Boogie” Ya’alon.
Netanyahu also has waged a determined fight to place himself at the center, rather than on the far right, of the Israeli political spectrum. He forced Moshe Feiglin, whose far-right Jewish leadership movement advocates transfer of Israeli Arab citizens out of Israel, well down the Likud list to the 36th slot. Netanyahu also has given the moderate Meridor a prominent role in the campaign.
Netanyahu’s critics in Kadima and Labor tend to highlight the hawks around him, like Begin and Ya’alon. They also say he is too close to the Orthodox Shas Party and that in a crisis he can’t stand the heat.
More tellingly, they pick on his perceived lack of credibility, highlighting the fact that although he claims he was against the idea of disengagement all along, he actually voted for it in the Knesset. And although Netanyahu says he would not give up the Golan, his detractors point out that he almost did so in secret negotiations with Syria in the late 1990s, when he was prime minister.
Netanyahu is focusing his campaign on two key issues: security and the economy. He argues that his tough policies are the best way to keep Israel safe and that his economic expertise will see the country through the current global crisis.
The Likud’s negative campaign suggests Livni would not be able to handle either and that the job of prime minister is several sizes “too big for her.”
Meanwhile, Netanyahu says he has no intention of forming a narrow, right-wing administration and maintains that if he wins, he will invite both Kadima and Labor to join his government.
Insiders, however, say he will choose only one of the two, and chances are it will be Labor. Netanyahu makes no secret of the fact that he wants Barak as his defense minister, and Netanyahu predicts that Kadima in opposition quickly will disintegrate as a political force. Kadima is less than four years old and was founded by Sharon as a centrist alternative to Likud.
Netanyahu hopes that having Labor in his government will give him real political latitude: In a coalition with Labor on the left and the hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas parties on the right, for example, Netanyahu would be able to count on Labor’s votes for a peace move and votes on the right should he decide to reject a peace deal.
If he wins, Netanyahu is almost certain to include Shas in his government. For more than a year he has been cultivating what he calls a “strategic alliance” with the Sephardic Orthodox party. The first payoff of the alliance came in September, when Shas prevented Livni from forming a coalition after she took the reins of Kadima, following Olmert’s resignation in July.
Now Netanyahu owes Shas, but he’d want to nurture the alliance anyway by bringing it into the government. That, however, could create a problem with Yisrael Beiteinu, a Russian-dominated right-wing party that has promised to introduce a form of civil marriage in Israel—a move Shas never would allow.
In any case, for now Netanyahu and the right are so far ahead in the polls that there would have to be a drastic last-minute swing for them to lose.
Two big issues still could make a difference: Whether by Feb. 10 the war in Gaza is perceived as a success and to what extent the electorate takes the fear of a Netanyahu-Obama collision seriously. Otherwise, Netanyahu is likely to soon get another chance to explain Israel’s case to the world, this time from the prime minister’s office.
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