Israeli Elections Netanyahu Poised to Return to Power

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister 10 years ago, is preparing to celebrate a comeback when Israelis go to the polls on Feb. 10. His personality is as polarizing as ever but his right-wing Likud party represents the new consensus following the recent Gaza war.

Ronald Lauder, 64, the youngest son of the deceased cosmetics entrepreneur Estée Lauder, is normally a reserved sort of person. A multi-billionaire, Lauder avoids large crowds. He is also familiar with the ins and outs of diplomacy, after having been the US Ambassador to Austria in the mid-1980s.

Last Monday, however, Lauder abandoned his diplomatic reserve for a moment. Wearing a dark pinstriped suit with a pocket handkerchief, he was standing on a stage at the Hotel Inbal in Jerusalem, introducing a "close friend." The delegates to the World Jewish Congress, of which Lauder is the president, had gathered in the room.

Israel's Likud party leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israel's Likud party leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Foto: DPA

Although he was identified on the screen as the "Israeli opposition leader," when Benjamin Netanyahu walked into the room, Lauder introduced him as the "prime minister of Israel." Whether it was intentional or a Freudian slip, the delegates did not seem particularly irritated. In fact, they applauded enthusiastically.

The Israelis will elect a new parliament next Tuesday, and it looks as though Bibi, as Netanyahu is called by friends and foes alike, is likely to be the new head of the government. His Likud Party is still leading in all the polls. It is predicted to win up to 27 of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset. Kadima, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has closed the gap somewhat with the latest polls on Friday showing the party winning 23 seats. However, with the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party set to win 18 or 19 seats, the parties on the center-right spectrum still seem poised to capture a stable majority.

But what would a Netanyahu victory mean for Israel, the Palestinians and the fragile Middle East region and the rest of the world? After a three-week war in the Gaza Strip, which just ended, but with no real hope for peace?

Operation Cast Lead has had surprisingly little impact on the predicted final outcome of the election. Even if it were true that Defense Minister Ehud Barak made sure, for tactical reasons, that the attack on Gaza would be as close to the election as possible, that plan does not seem to have worked. After a brief boost in the polls, his Labor Party is bobbing along with only 14 seats. Ironically, Labor, the party of the prime minister for almost 30 uninterrupted years since the founding of Israel, now faces the prospect of slipping to fourth place, and falling behind ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman who heads Yisrael Beiteinu, a party that has widened its appeal beyond his fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union to other hardline Israelis.

A Spectacular Comeback

Foreign Minister Livni is running for the Kadima Party in place of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who resigned and announced that he would not seek re-election. Friday's polls showed that she is narrowing Netanyahu's lead. However, with each new attack from the Gaza Strip, the unilateral Israeli cease-fire she brought about becomes more and more discredited. Her stated goal in the war was to put an end to the Hamas rocket attacks on Israel, but last week missiles fired from Gaza landed on Israeli territory once again, and an Israeli soldier was killed in a bombing attack on a border patrol.

Netanyahu's return to power, 10 years after being voted out of office, would be a spectacular comeback, even in the country of constant political reincarnations.

Gaza is Netanyahu's most effective campaign ammunition. For him, it is synonymous with all things hostile: his political opponents, Palestinians unwilling to make peace and, of course, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has been known to liken Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler. Ahmadinejad's "fanatical regime" is only a "100-meter sprint" from a nuclear bomb, Netanyahu said last week. Gaza is now so hated among Israelis that members of the city council in Jerusalem are considering renaming Gaza Street in the Rechavya neighborhood west of the Old City.

Perhaps coincidentally, Netanyahu and his wife live on Gaza Street, on the upper floor of an inconspicuous apartment building. The only evidence of special security measures is the retractable security barrier in front of the garage entrance. The prime minister's residence is less than 500 meters away -- only a short distance to go for Bibi.

Last Tuesday evening, every last seat was taken at the Jerusalem Convention Center, where the Likud candidates were standing on the stage waiting for their chairman to appear. Netanyahu managed to compile an impressive list, with top slots going to Moshe Yaalon, the former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, and Benny Begin, the son of the first Likud premier. The men's role at the meeting was to whip the audience into a frenzy. Yaalon castigated the government's "policy of withdrawals" and warned against the "jihadist danger posed by Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran." Benny Begin said sharply: "Every piece of land that was given up has been transformed into a terrorist base."

Once again, the Middle East threatens to become caught between two opposing developments. While a declared hardliner prepares to take over the government in Israel, new US President Barack Obama has announced an "aggressive" peace initiative. His Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, traveled to the region last week. But what the former US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland encountered there were the ruins of the peace process.

'There Isn't Much Left for Bibi to Destroy'

The trio consisting of Olmert, Livni and Barak brought the negotiations with the Palestinians to a standstill. All three held talks with the other side, but they did so separately and without taking the others into account. For Olmert, speed came before thoroughness, while Livni's priorities were the exact opposite. Barak, for his part, impeded economic development in the West Bank by constantly raising new security concerns.

After the Gaza war, the negotiations have been put on ice and moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's initial silence on the many civilian casualties of the war have weakened his standing with his own people. Where should he find any latitude anymore for talks with Jerusalem? "Today we are convinced more than ever, especially after the aggression against Gaza, that Israel does not want peace," Abbas said angrily last Tuesday.

There is a key difference between the current campaign and Netanyahu's 1996 election victory: There was a peace process then, but today there is none. "There isn't much left for Bibi to destroy. Barak and Livni have already done that job for him," Mohammad Barakeh, General Secretary of the Israeli Arab Hadash Party and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, says derisively.

Barakeh, an Israeli Arab, has noticed how the normally strong differences of opinion among Jewish Israelis have melted together to form a sudden consensus in recent weeks. Recent polls reinforce his diagnosis. Eighty-eight percent of Jews living in Israel are "proud" or "very proud" to be Israelis. The percentage of those willing to "sacrifice" themselves for their country rose from 84 to 95 percent.

Arab citizens of Israel, on the other hand, are increasingly viewed as enemies of the state. What else could explain the fact that the Knesset election committee, armed with the votes of Likud, Kadima and the Labor Party, voted to exclude two Arab parties from the election? It was only the Israeli Supreme Court that reversed the decision.

Even the Meretz Party, which strongly advocates cooperation between Palestinians and Jews, supported the war against Hamas. "If Israel is attacked from a region it has completely abandoned, it is justifiable for us to defend ourselves," the party's chairman, Chaim Oron, said at a discussion with students in the desert city of Beersheba.

A campaign song resonates through the Jerusalem Convention Center where the Likud members are waiting for their chairman: "The stronger Likud is, the stronger the country is." The same song was played before the last election, conveying the message that Likud remains true to itself. A door opens and Netanyahu walks up the aisle, and he too has hardly changed. Perhaps he has put on a few pounds, but he still has the same jovial smile, and his gray hair is still combed from left to right to cover his half-bald head.

Netanyahu, 59, comes across as a hardliner. He lists all the things that will not happen under his watch. They include sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians and returning the Golan Heights to Syria. With revulsion in his voice, Netanyahu mentions the current education minister, a member of the Labor Party. She had ordered that the Palestinian take on 1948, the year Israel was founded, be included in school history lessons. "We will bring Zionism back into the schoolbooks," says Netanyahu.

The audience claps enthusiastically. Many are wearing kippahs, and one man has a white-and-blue Israel flag draped around his shoulders. The words, Netanyahu - Ben Yamin, "Son of the Right" are written on the flag.

"There is always a difference between what is said before the election and what is done after the election," says Dan Meridor. The former justice minister left Likud in 1998 to establish a centrist party. In November, Netanyahu convinced him to return to Likud. "If I didn't believe that a moderate policy were possible under Netanyahu, I would not have come back," says Meridor. "I believe that Netanyahu is a man of the center."

Right or center? In the Kadima Party, they portray Netanyahu as nothing but an opportunist, and a campaign commercial reminds voters that he also voted for Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Only when Likud's popularity began falling in the polls did Netanyahu -- not unlike a flag in the wind -- finally turn around.

Ariel Sharon, the former premier and father of the Gaza withdrawal, who remains in a coma to this day, also believed that Netanyahu was a political opportunist. When you meet with Bibi, Sharon once said, you never know whether he will walk away to the right or to the left.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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