Middle East

Conditions ripe for Netanyahu election win

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu lights candles to mark Hanukah during an event for foreign journalists in Jerusalem on 10/12/12
Image caption Benjamin Netanyahu is in a comfortable position in the run-up to January's polls

December is a time of celebration in Israel when the candles of Hanukah light the way to the festivities of Christmas and the Western New Year beyond.

So intense is the concentrated spirit of goodwill that the Israeli government shrugs off the baggage of its sometimes fractious relationship with the international media to hold a reception for members of the foreign press.

An uncharacteristically genial Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presided over proceedings, somehow managing to draw attention to his knowledge of Chaucer and enjoying a Question-and-Answer session with the journalists.

There was one bit he particularly enjoyed.

When a foreign TV producer asked about an opinion poll that showed 81% of Israelis expect him to re-emerge from January's election as prime minister he asked him to say the question again.

The journalist was half-way through repeating the statistic in a slightly louder voice when he realised that a smiling Mr Netanyahu was just relishing the sound of it being said out loud.

The Israeli prime minister of course was quick to follow it up by underlining the credentials behind that remarkable figure.

"I do what I think is necessary to defend the state of Israel," he said. " I don't think the Jews are going to be given another chance in history."

Street protests

Some political scientists believe that asking people who they think is going to win an election is a more useful analytical tool than simply asking who they intend to vote for themselves.

By that measure, any result other than Mr Netanyahu's return as prime minister already seems unlikely - although of course he might try to construct a different coalition to the one which saw him through the current parliament.

In the current campaign, his Likud Party is running a combined slate of candidates with Yisrael Beiteinu, the hardline nationalist movement led by his tough-talking former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. It remains to be seen if Mr Lieberman's indictment on a charge of misconduct in public office will have any impact on the results.

Many outsiders might consider Mr Netanyahu himself to be straightforwardly a figure of the Israeli right, but the distinguished Hebrew University political scientist Avraham Diskin cautions that the man seeking a third term as Israel's prime minister is much more complex than that.

He is capable rather than likeable, argues Professor Diskin, but he has also shown that he is prepared to enter into coalition arrangements with parties from the left as well as the religious right.

"I'm not sure about popularity," Professor Diskin explained. "But I think he is regarded as someone who can do the job, that's really the secret, and because he moved to the centre pragmatically he gets some support from centrist voters. Electorally, that is the key."

The sentiment that Mr Netanyahu is overwhelmingly likely to win a third term may seem a little odd when you consider the problems his government has faced - and not really solved.

Nurses were on strike as the election campaign began to gather pace, and that industrial action came after last year's huge street protests against high prices and shortages of housing.

'Image and reality'

But the truth is that modern Israel is an apprehensive place.

The winds of change from the Arab Spring blow colder here than they do in the rest of the Middle East.

The violence and chaos of the Syrian civil war is just over the ceasefire line left when the two countries stopped fighting in 1973. Egypt, long a reliable ally, is suddenly less friendly.

And over it all looms the great strategic question of what to do about peace with the Palestinians.

The recent conflict in Gaza shows the prospect of peace with Hamas is vanishingly remote.

Image caption Mr Netanyahu will have to do without his coalition partner Avigdor Lieberman who has resigned

And the success of the Palestinian Authority in persuading the United Nations to upgrade its membership status left many Israelis reflecting a little uneasily on the dangers of international isolation.

In such times, many Israelis feel its natural to turn to a man like Mr Netanyahu who is seen as hawkish on national security issues - a man who makes Israel's case on the world stage even if he does not make many friends.

In that climate, opposition leaders can find it difficult to build momentum.

In the last elections, the former foreign minister Tzipi Livni's Kadima Party actually won more seats than Mr Netanyahu's Likud although, because she could not form a coalition, he ended up as prime minister.

She is back in these elections with a new movement - called The Movement - and she is looking for the votes of the centre and the centre left.

We met her at a TV show staged by media students at the IDC College in the town of Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv.

She told me that she has to persuade voters that even in these worrying times they should not turn to someone like Mr Netanyahu who talks tough on national security problems, but to someone who would negotiate to fix them. Someone like her.

"I believe there's an impression that there's not a real alternative to Netanyahu," she told me. "The reality is that there is the bloc of centre, and centre left."

When I put it to her that, to some Israeli voters he just looks tougher than her, she smiled. "That's an image," she said. "I need to bridge the gap between image and reality."

However hard Mrs Livni and the others campaign though, there is no doubting that the belief of 81% of the electorate, that Mr Netanyahu is heading for victory, throws a shadow over the early phase of campaigning.

That government reception, where the prime minister enjoyed his little joke at the expense of that foreign TV producer, ended with pictures of Mr Netanyahu lighting a candle of celebration. Most Israelis believe he will still be celebrating when the election month of January is over.