BEIRUT

Middle East

Israel's Netanyahu, a premier with no real rivals

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) speaks on the phone to persuade citizens to vote for his party at the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu headquarters in Tel Aviv January 17, 2013. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is running in Tuesday's election with no real rivals, and has plenty of reason to expect he will return to office and be tasked with forming the new coalition.

Despised by much of the local media, and the target of jabs by foreign leaders, Netanyahu is nonetheless riding high in the polls.

His right-wing Likud has joined forces with the hardline secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu under former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and is projected to win between 32 and 35 seats, far ahead of its closest rival, Labour, which is seen taking a maximum of 17.

The projections represent a big decline for Likud-Beitenu, which jointly hold 42 mandates in the outgoing Knesset, Israel's 120-seat parliament.

But it will still be enough to see Netanyahu secure another term in office.

Throughout his premiership, Netanyahu has thrown himself into garnering world support against Iran's nuclear programme which Israel and much of the West see as a guise for developing a weapons capability, a charge Tehran denies.

Netanyahu insists a nuclear Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel and has never ruled out a pre-emptive military strike on its nuclear facilities.

Although Iran has never been taken off the agenda, rising socio-economic discontent and an unexpected challenge to his right-wing bona fides has meant foreign policy issues have been put on the back burner for most of the campaign.

With polls indicating Netanyahu's re-election is a foregone conclusion, the biggest challenge has come from the far-right national religious Jewish Home, which has experienced a revival under its charismatic new leader Naftali Bennett.

Despite the challenge, Netanyahu remains Israelis' top pick for prime minister who won major kudos for his success in securing the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit, who was held by Gaza militants for more than five years.

He has also touted the relative stability of Israel's economy during the world financial crisis, although figures released last week show he will have to push through bitter austerity measures in order to tackle a burgeoning state deficit.

Known as "Bibi", the stocky leader with the trademark comb-over has had a difficult relationship with several world leaders, notably US President Barack Obama.

Over the past four years, the two have clashed over the peace process with the Palestinians and how to handle Iran.

In a recent article, Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg suggested Obama saw Netanyahu as a "political coward" over the peace process whose ongoing settlement activity was moving Israel "down a path toward near total isolation".

In 2011, Obama was overheard discussing Netanyahu with then French president Nicolas Sarkozy who said: "I can't stand him any more, he's a liar."

"You may be sick of him, but me, I have to deal with him every day," Obama retorted.

Smooth-talking and ever ready with a soundbite in slick American-English, Netanyahu became Israel's youngest premier in 1996, aged 45. But three years later, he was defeated by Labour chief Ehud Barak campaigning under the slogan "Anyone but Bibi".

Six years later, he served as both foreign minister and finance minister under Likud premier Ariel Sharon.

In late 2005, he took over as Likud leader after Sharon left to found Kadima, but several months later, led the party to a humiliating defeat in the 2006 election, taking just 12 seats.

But the party bounced back in 2009, winning 27 seats.

Although Kadima won 28, it was unable to form a coalition and the task fell to Netanyahu whose horse-trading skills enabled him to build a government with a working majority, handing him second spell as premier.

The son of an ultra-Zionist historian, Netanyahu is a staunch conservative with a hard line on peace with the Palestinians.

Although he accepted the concept of a Palestinian state for the first time in 2009, he has done little to move forward in negotiations, and his government has pushed through the highest number of settler homes in a decade.

He has doggedly insisted that the Palestinians recognise Israel as a "Jewish state" and has rejected their condition for restarting stalled peace talks -- freeze on settlement construction.

If re-elected, Netanyahu has vowed not to remove any Jewish settlements and has ruled out any future freeze on construction beyond the so-called Green Line, the line that existed before the 1967 Six-Day War.

 

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