Benyamin Netanyahu on the back foot

Seeking a fourth term as president of Israel

With his Likud party slipping in the polls to trail the main opposition by three to four seats it's looking more likely that Israel may find itself with a new prime minister after its elections on March 17th. Both the domestic row over Benyamin Netanyahu's extravagant taste for takeaways, and his grandstanding speech to the US Congress last week, seem to have undermined Likud's poll standing, and main challenger, the centre-left Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, has moved ahead for the first time in the campaign.

Mr Netanyahu, who is seeking a fourth term as premier, is certainly resilient but has been under considerable pressure. More than half of the country’s voters say that social issues and falling living standards are their top priority in these elections, while less than 30 per cent are most preoccupied with Israel’s security, the issues where the the prime minister polls best.

Mr Netanyahu’s hyping of the threat to Israel’s security, and specifically the alleged existential threat that a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme is supposed to pose, and his responsibility for the state’s abysmal relations with the Palestinians are the issues on which he is concentrating his campaigning, and the issues on which the rest of the world will judge his stewardship. And because of which, Mr Netanyahu is probably right to suggest, much of the world community would be only too happy to see his back.

Domestic criticism that his US speech, however much its content is backed domestically, only served to isolate Israel from key allies has been hurting. “So Netanyahu gave a speech,” Livni sniped. “Did we get up this morning to a state of Israel that is not under threat? Or did we get up to a more isolated country?”


The problem is that, although disenchanted with “Bibi”, voters have not, at least until the last few days, believed that there is a realistic alternative. That, traditionally, has been the left, in the doldrums since it was discredited by the failure of the Oslo accord – its three components Labor, Meretz and the Arab parties (this time the “Joint List”), never held less than 48 seats until after the 1999 election but never more than 34 since 2003 . Labor leader Isaac Herzog is widely derided – a bit like Ed Miliband – for lacking charisma and plausibility as a prime minister.

Even if he and Livni, however, achieve the 24-25 seats polls are now suggesting (out of the Knesset’s 120), he will not find coalition building for a stable majority easy. The Joint List, expected to do well, will not join a government, and attempts to recruit Meretz will simply antagonise centrists also needed for a majority. There is every possibility that in such circumstances a reduced Netanyahu could yet again cobble together another coalition. A prospect that does not bode well for any resumption of peace talks.