Friday, 18 January 2013

Defiant Netanyahu set to confound critics

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A monumental banner of Benjamin Netanyahu hanging on a bridge over a busy intersection in Tel Aviv shows the Israeli prime minister standing next to Jerusalem’s Western Wall with the slogan: “A strong Netanyahu, a strong government.”

In the campaign leading up to Tuesday’s election, the forceful leader has presented himself as a bulwark of Zionist values and the sole guarantor of security in a region dangerously roiled by the Arab spring.

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“I always keep a map with me at my office to remind me of where we live,” Mr Netanyahu said in an interview published on Friday that ran alongside a photo of him pointing to a large colour map of the Middle East.

Two polls published on Friday showed Mr Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud Beiteinu bloc on course to form Israel’s next government as the largest party by far, with 32 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. If they are correct, the 63-year-old will become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister since David Ben-Gurion, its founding father.

The expected victory will confound and frustrate his many critics in Israel and abroad. They argue Mr Netanyahu has deepened Israel’s isolation, forced mainstream political discourse to the right and buried hopes of peace with the Palestinians by embarking on an unprecedented expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, including nearly 200 units approved this week.

“Netanyahu has made the two-state solution harder for Israel by promoting projects that will need to be removed in order to have a viable Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel,” says Hagit Ofran of the Israeli leftwing activist group Peace Now.

Mr Netanyahu’s premiership saw him push Iran’s nuclear programme to the top of the international agenda, with a speech at the UN last year in which he brandished a drawing of a bomb with a lit fuse, urging action if Tehran crossed a “red line” on its capability. Turkey, Israel’s biggest regional ally, severed ties after Israel’s fatal storming of a boat bringing humanitarian aid to Gaza in 2010.

Tensions with the US, Israel’s closest ally, were laid bare this week with leaked comments attributed to President Barack Obama warning that the expansion of settlements was driving the Jewish state towards “near-total isolation” and reportedly saying: “Israel doesn’t know what its own interests are.”

“No one decides for the citizens of Israel,” Mr Netanyahu later told the rightwing Israel Hayom newspaper in response to the remarks. “I think that President Obama knows that the ones determining Israel’s vital interests are the citizens of Israel, and they will be the ones to choose who will protect those interests in the best possible way.”

If, as the adage holds, every nation gets the government it deserves, a plurality – though not a majority – of Israelis on January 22 will re-elect a leader who reflects a defiant, introspective, pessimistic public mood.

A poll published on Friday showed that while 52 per cent of Israelis favoured an independent Palestinian state, 62 per cent did not think a peace agreement was possible. Most Israelis see Likud as the most credible party on security.

“Netanyahu is not telling people, ‘We can get to a solution,’ ” says Rafi Smith, a pollster. “He’s telling them that because everyone around us hates us we have to be strong and hawkish in the way we look at life and at the security issue.”

On the campaign trail this month, Mr Netanyahu visited Israel’s fortified border fence with Egypt, built to keep out what the government and some Israeli media call “infiltrators”, including African migrants. Last weekend he dispatched police to drag peaceful protesters from a mountaintop east of Jerusalem where his government plans to expand Jewish settlements, a move Palestinians and Israel’s allies warn would imperil a viable Palestinian state.

The prime minister’s march towards re-election has been aided by a centre-left opposition that failed to unite behind a single leader. Labour, Israel’s second-biggest party, campaigned on economic issues, including soaring living costs, but Mr Netanyahu countered by pointing to Israel’s gross domestic product growth during the global downturn and its status as a “technological world power”.

Despite the prime minister’s confidence, his Likud Beiteinu will probably have a weaker mandate after the election. The latest projection of 32 seats falls 10 short of the 42 the bloc now holds, meaning it will need to cobble together a broad coalition of rightwing and, say analysts, centrist parties.

“In his first term he had a narrow government, which made it difficult for him to fulfil his mandate,” says Israel Bachar, a political strategist who has advised Mr Netanyahu. “I think the political wisdom now is that every Israeli prime minister is trying to form a unity government or broad coalition, and he will do the same.”

Whatever the make-up of the next coalition, Mr Netanyahu on Friday signalled to Israeli media that afterwards he would resist any peace initiative put forward by the Europeans that included a return of Jewish West Bank settlers to Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries – suggesting no retreat from the policies that have frayed Israel’s relations with its allies.

“I don’t deal in giving away concessions,” he told the Maariv newspaper. “Our record has proved this.”

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