Survival test for Netanyahu as Israel goes to poll Tuesday
Jerusalem, Sep. 16 (PTI): As Israel goes to an unprecedented repeat polls on Tuesday, merely 160 days after the last elections on April 9 that failed to yield a government, the central question surrounding the voters is if the country’s longest serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will survive the toughest political challenge of his life.
Haunted by alleged charges of corruption on multiple counts, which he has denied, Netanyahu not only faces a fight for political survival but also personal liberty with a decisive victory probably the only thing that could keep him out of his legal woes.
Recent poll surveys have shown his ruling Likud party locked in a close contest with challenger Benny Gantz, a former Chief of Staff, leading the newly formed Blue and White party that had won 35 seats and tied with Netanyahu’s party in the April polls.
The last poll results were seen as a major victory for the 69-year-old Netanyahu and right-wing formation led by him but hopes of an extended term for the Premier were dashed after an old associate, Avigdor Lieberman, turned hostile and refused to support the coalition with his five members on the question of everybody equally sharing the load of national service.
Lieberman, an ultra-nationalist leader backed primarily by a large chunk of immigrant voters from the former Soviet Union, demanded that a section of the ultra-orthodox population enjoying exemption from military service forego the privilege and serve the nation like everybody else.
His insistence on the demand, which would have isolated the religious parties, prevented Netanyahu from mustering a 61 member majority in the 120 member Knesset (Israeli parliament) by a mere single vote.
Failing in his efforts to break into the Centre and left of Centre political formations, Netanyahu hurriedly called to dissolve the parliament and call for fresh elections hoping to discredit Lieberman and get a clear mandate.
To his dismay, the opinion polls show a bigger mandate for Lieberman (8 to 10 from 5 of last time), who many see as the one who may emerge as the kingmaker in deciding who leads the next government.
A close look at the opinion polls show a clear majority for the right-wing bloc, probably with even a higher number than the polls in April, but Lieberman’s unpredictable moves has definitely had the Prime Minister feel worried.
The ultra-nationalist leader has also kept his cards close to his chest which has made the day after elections even more interesting, keeping the suspense on.
Netanyahu, after an uninterrupted ten and a half years at the helm of the affairs, has dominated the national discourse.
He has earned the reputation of a “Mr. Security”, a leader who has kept the economy stable during times of recession, and is the only leader of some stature that the world recognizes. The Israeli Prime Minister has not shied away from demonstrating his closeness with world leaders.
Banners of Netanyahu with US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Likud Headquarters projecting him “in a different league” are still fresh among his electorates.
The US President deciding to recognise Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel, moving the embassy to Jerusalem, recognising Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights just before April polls had helped Netanyahu boost his campaign.
Such “gifts” from world leaders have not been coming this time around and Putin did not show any inclination to back him on his announcement to annex the Jordan valley if re-elected during his visit to Sochi a few days back.
Trump did try to make it up last Saturday by delivering “a small election gift” by announcing on Twitter that he was exploring a possible defence pact with Israel.
While the announcement was less dramatic than the Golan announcement in April, Netanyahu happily accepted the gesture, thanking his “dear friend” and dubbing it as “historic.”
The controversial announcement regarding the Jordan valley has also failed to have the desirable impact among the targeted voting constituency with Likud’s poll prospects not getting any boost as per opinion polls.
Some analysts have even dubbed it as “election hysteria”.
Netanyahu’s attacks on Israel’s Arab minority has been the most controversial attracting worldwide attention.
Two developments which may play a role in deciding the outcome of the polls, as per many columnists, is a definite rise in the number of Arab voters going to the polls and a near complete turnout among the ultra-orthodox.
The Arab parties were divided during the last polls which dampened the spirits in the sector registering a record low turnout of less than fifty per cent.
With the Joint List predicted to win more than 10 seats, it is being predicted that the voter turnout will definitely be significantly higher.
The high turnout among the ultra-orthodox is driven by a fear factor emerging out of the outcome of the last polls.
They will come out in large numbers to be in a position to negotiate on the matter of exemption from mandatory national service when the next government is formed.
If the final outcome of the polls are aligned with the surveys then the possibility of a national unity government is the most realistic one, but suspense over Netanyahu’s continuity at the helm of Israeli politics hangs in the balance just before Israelis go to the polls.