As Israel’s national election campaign comes to a close, a flurry of news stories have appeared in the American press.
When a Netanyahu victory seemed a forgone conclusion, the election received almost no coverage. However, when polls showed diminishing support for Neatanyahu’s’ Likud Party, the left-wing media began focusing some attention on the election. They are hoping some negative press might undermine what looks like an election that will show the world that the Israeli public is supportive of Netanyahu’s tough stance against Hamas, Iran, and the weak international response to Iran going nuclear.
Netanyahu’s opponents have tried to turn his difficult relationship with the Obama Administration against him. Late last week, an American columnist claimed that President Obama has recently said that Netanyahu does not know what is good for Israel. This prompted Netanyahu’s political opponents to proclaim that he is the wrong leader for Israel because he is at odds with America’s President. But to their chagrin, this “leak” looks like it is backfiring. Israel’s electorate appears to be comfortable with a Prime Minister who puts Israel first.
This line of attack on Netanyahu has proven to be as ineffective as the left trying to gain votes by accusing Netanyahu of failing to conclude a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Poll after poll has shown that a majority of Israel’s citizens are supportive of re-electing Netanyahu and his hard-line policies. When asked, Israeli voters say Netanyahu is the candidate most qualified to lead their country. But this endorsement is not without reservations.
During the course of the campaign, Netanyahu’s Likud Party, which has formed an alliance with Foreign Minister Lieberman’s party, has lost support in the polls. At one point they seemed on course to win 42-47 seats (there are 120 seats in the Israeli Parliament), which would have made them the country’s dominant party. But a variety of factors, including Likud’s ill-conceived attacks on the right wing Israel Home Party, have contributed to the weakening of the Likud-Yirael Betanyu coalition.
Despite an image of ideological purity abroad, Netanyahu has always had an an uneasy relationship with Israel’s political right. The emergence of Naftali Bennet, a successful business entrepreneur with an impressive military record, offers right-wing voters a way to vote their beliefs without voting for Likud. They know that Bennet, while critical of some Netanyahu policies, will support Netanyahu for Prime Minister. This has clearly contributed to the growing strength of Bennet’s party and the weakening of Likud.
Bennet’s growing strength has caused Netanyahu to repeatedly declare that he will continue to build in Jerusalem despite international opposition and he will continue to speak out for stronger action against Iran’s nuclear program. But these attempts to out flank Bennet have come up short. In the military there are many soldiers who are voting Bennet because they feel Israel should have destroyed Hamas before stopping military operations in Gaza. Bennet also draws voters because he opposes Netanyahu’s support for a Palestinian state.
While the left in Israel and in the United States will continue to try to spin the fiction that Netanyhu’s weakening in the polls is a rejection by Israelis of his policies, the reality is that Israelis are about to strengthen right-wing parties because they want Netanyahu to be more right-wing in his next administration. Israelis want him as their Prime Minister, but they want a strong Naftali Bennet to keep him honest.