Trouble For Bibi As Israel Heads To The Polls
Will Netanyahu return?
NEW DELHI: Things do not look good for Bibi. As Israel heads to the polls --which were called two years ahead of schedule by a once-confident Benjamin Netanyahu -- the Israeli Prime Minister’s ruling Likud party seems to be trailing behind the centre-left Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog.
Netanyahu’s desperation in fact can be ascertained from a statement made on Monday, on the eve of polling. “I think that anyone who goes about establishing a Palestinian state today and vacating territory is giving attack territory to extremist Islam to be used against the state of Israel. That is the real reality that has been created here in recent years. Whoever ignores this is putting his head in the sand,” Netanyahu told the Israeli NRG website. When asked by his interviewer whether that meant, “If you are prime minister then there won’t be a Palestinian state?’’ Netanyahu replied: “Indeed.’’
The statement is a complete reversal of Netanyahu’s position, as he has been very careful to not to explicitly discount Palestinian statehood, owing to his relationship with Washington and the position of the international community. The statement indicated that Netanyahu -- already on tenterhooks with the US following a speech on the Iran nuclear deal to Congress -- would go to any extent to appeal to right wing voters. Allies (especially Washington) be damned.
This desperation was also evinced in Netanyahu’s address to Congress. The speech was the flashpoint in deteriorating Israel-US relations, with US President Obama -- who hadn’t invited Netanyahu in the first place -- not being in attendance. Even faced with criticism, Netanyahu refused to cancel the speech. Netanyahu tweeted, “I am going to the United States not because I seek a confrontation with the President but to speak up for the very survival of my country.”
The speech however, had more to do with Netanyahu’s own survival, that Israel’s. It was a gamble meant to cater to the right-wing vote in Israel, at the expense of the country’s relations with the White House. Netanyahu seems to believe that if he is able to successfully trump up national security as a key issue, he may be able to return for a historic fourth term. Israelis generally agree with Netanyahu’s position on Iran and Palestine, but there is a level of caution in reference to alienating the country’s closest ally -- the US. This dilemma was captured by the headline of a front-page column in Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, “You’re Right, But Don’t Go.”
Columnist Ben-Dror Yemini wrote, “Precisely because the Iranian threat is so important, precisely because you’re right, precisely because the things you would tell Congress are important — don’t go. Because doing this would hurt the very issue that is the reason for your trip.”
As Israel hids to the polls today, it’s important to remember that even though things do not look good for Bibi, he took the decision to call for early polls. Trouble brewed when Netanyahu fired two key cabinet ministers, the finance minister, Yair Lapid, leader of the large centrist Yesh Atid party, and the justice minister, Tzipi Livni, head of the centrist Hatnuah party. Livni, along with running mate Isaac Herzog, now head the Labour Party that is offering stiff competition to Netanyahu and his Likud party.
Further, by trumping up Iran and Palestine, Netanyahu has obfuscated a key electoral issue: the economy. In a recent poll conducted by the Knesset Channel, 56 percent of Israelis said that they will vote based on socioeconomic issues, compared to 30 percent on Iran’s nuclear programme. Netanyahu is widely perceived to be responsible for the skyrocketing cost of living.
It is this economic dissatisfaction that has Netanyahu’s party, according a Knesset Channel poll, winning just 21 seats. The main center-left competitor, the Zionist Camp, was polling at 24.