Israel election: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is losing votes


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting in his offices on Jan. 06, 2013 in Jerusalem, Israel. Though Netanyahu is the frontrunner in Israel's upcoming election, he has been losing ground to far right-wing figures like Naftali Bennett.


Uriel Sinai

JERUSALEM — When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for elections in October, he quickly moved to unify his right-wing Likud party with the even more right-wing party of his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

As a result, experts considered the pair a shoo-in to dominate the election. Polls predicted the joint team could gain up to 45 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

It was taken as an article of faith that the canny Netanyahu had safeguarded his rightward flank through the union with Lieberman and that, at the very least, he would maintain the 41 seat bloc they hold today.

While not an outright majority, that kind of win could have led to an easily constructed coalition with the addition of just one mid-sized party from Israel's turnstile stable of them.

But something has happened on the way to the voting booths, which open on Jan. 22. The latest polls show Netanyahu's Likud down to as low as 32 seats.

Of course, being the frontrunner — while enviable — carries certain risks, including voter indifference or apathy.

In addition, the Likud campaign team, once thought of as a well-oiled if not unbeatable machine, has proven itself surprisingly lackluster this electoral season. It has made maladroit errors, such as attacking both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is not seen as a factor in this electoral season, and Israel's own ever-popular President Shimon Peres, in a single weekend.

Then there's the problem of Netanyahu himself. While seen to be the inevitable future prime minister, he is not widely liked.

"Many are just not enthusiastic about Netanyahu. But as none of the other party leaders are really considered potential prime ministers, he is seen as the only one who can win," said pollster Rafi Smith in a briefing for journalists. Still, Smith believes the bleed for Likud votes will be staunched, maybe even reversed, before voting day.

The flip side, of course, is that banking on a Netanyahu win, many Likud voters are allowing their eyes to stray to smaller niche parties.

It’s "as if there were a direct election for prime minister, and not a matter of who will win the most seats in the Knesset," said Hebrew University political science professor Gidi Rahat, who also estimates that Netanyahu will be the next prime minister, but foresees a period of turbulence.

"He could get a very low number of mandates, not even a majority in government. And if Lieberman ends up undoing the union with Likud, as he has threatened, it will be even smaller. Given that there are no other options, I think it will be easy for him to be reelected. On the other hand, it will be very hard to govern."

Assuming the election will be decided on security issues, as most in this country have been, the Likud seems not to have prepared for critiques of its handling of the economy.

This omission has opened a vulnerable front with the Labor Party, which is seeing something of a rebirth at about 18 projected seats. The upstart and secularist Yesh Atid party of former journalist Yair Lapid is also making inroads, holding steady now at 10 or 11 seats.

But worst of all for Netanyahu is the predicament of Lieberman, who only days after the election announcement found himself indicted on corruption charges. He was obliged to resign his ministerial job, though not his parliamentary seat.

The loss of Lieberman left Netanyahu without his shield against attacks from a growingly strident extreme right, and left him floundering with an absent number two man for his list.

Naftali Bennett, the phenomenon of these elections, deftly stepped in to fill the vacuum left by Lieberman's enforced departure.

Bennett, 40, was until six weeks ago a complete unknown in the Israeli political scene. A former Netanyahu aide and high-tech wizard who sold his start-up company for $145 million and claims to have devoted most of his post-bonanza shopping to books, "mostly biographies."

He is a former soldier in Israel's most élite crack army unit. The baby-faced Bennett now incarnates almost every idealized Israeli archetype — and has quickly become Netanyahu's nemesis.

The latest polls show Bennett's Jewish Home party swelling to 14 seats.

Bennett is one of the more radical voices on the right and has shown a showman's propensity for drawing media attention by proposing extremist policies, such as the annexation of the West Bank and the "voluntary deportation" of Palestinians.

He has stepped with seeming confidence into areas of political no man's land, such as denying the need for a Palestinian state, yet remains untested and vague on most details.

So far, Bennett's worst gaffe was when he thoughtlessly said in a television interview that he would not accept orders to evacuate Jews from their homes in the territories. (In Israel, refusing military orders is a taboo akin to an American candidate acknowledging an illegitimate child.)

The predictable political and media storm ensued. But, true to the form of the current electoral season, it was the Likud overreaction, which included former Israel Army Chief of Staff and current Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon accusing Bennett of all but treason, which won the media cycle.

Smith, the pollster, said the Lieberman indictment provoked some voters of Russian origin, a huge Lieberman demographic, and a group the Likud previously thought was in its pocket "to feel disappointed and lose their political bearings somewhat. They are not sure how to take this. The largest percentage of undecideds is found among these Russians — and almost 25 percent of potential voters are still undecided."

Nine days to go.