x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Israel's Netanyahu on track to win election, despite halting Gaza assault

Even as domestic right-wing opposition mounts against Benjamin Netanyahu for halting Gaza attacks before carrying out a ground incursion, the Israeli prime minister is poised to win the country's premiership in January's election.

Benjamin Netanyahu leaves after casting his ballot for the Likud party leadership at a polling station in the Jewish settlement of Givat Zeev in the West Bank.
Benjamin Netanyahu leaves after casting his ballot for the Likud party leadership at a polling station in the Jewish settlement of Givat Zeev in the West Bank.

TEL AVIV // Even as domestic right-wing opposition mounts against Benjamin Netanyahu for halting Gaza attacks before carrying out a ground incursion, analysts say the Israeli prime minister remains on track to win the country's premiership in January's election.

With the eight days of strikes against Gaza's Hamas rulers that ended with an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire on Wednesday, the hard-line Israeli premier has succeeded in shifting voters' focus towards security issues and away from economic and social hardships.

Such a shift undermines the campaigns of left-wing and centrist rivals of Mr Netanyahu who have tried aggressively to spur voters from across the political spectrum to protest against the premier's economic policies.

Furthermore, Mr Netanyahu may have added some support from politically centrist Israelis who were undecided and who had approved of his decision to avoid a ground invasion of Gaza. Such centrists viewed an incursion as likely to claim many lives on both sides of the Israel-Gaza border without necessarily helping Israel stop rocket attacks from Gaza.

Analysts say those additional voters should help bolster the Israeli camp that is composed of hard-line, ultranationalist and ultrareligious parties, is led by Mr Netanyahu's Likud party and is slated by analysts to obtain a majority of the parliament's 120 seats in the January 22 ballot.

Tamir Shaefer, a political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said: "The right wing, as a whole, will gain because the security issue is now dominating the election agenda. As long as the right wins the parliamentary majority in the election - which it now has by far, Netanyahu will be the next prime minister."

Mr Netanyahu's decision to time Israel's assault against Hamas in the Gaza Strip just two months ahead of elections was partly attributed, by many experts, as a bid to gain popular support by appearing as a leader who would aggressively bolster Israel's security.

The premier had played down such speculation, claiming that the increased rocket attacks from the Hamas-ruled territory into southern Israeli cities and communities drove his decision to carry out the assault this month.

A poll released during the weekend by the mass-selling Maariv newspaper showed the Likud's joint ticket with the ultranationalist movement Yisrael Beiteinu would garner 37 parliamentary seats and the right-wing bloc gain the majority of seats of the Israeli parliament, or Knesset. A poll taken before the Gaza attacks showed the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu union obtaining 43 spots, a drop commentators attribute to right-wing criticism that Mr Netanyahu was insufficiently aggressive during the Gaza campaign and ended it too early.

According to Israeli law, the premiership is granted to the leader of the party most capable of forming a governing coalition made up of at least 61 members of the 120-member parliament.

Any critics of the prime minister who may opt to shun Likud in the ballot because they wanted a fiercer Gaza operation are hardliners that will instead choose another more extremist right-wing party rather than give their vote to the centre or left, therefore still leaving the right as the stronger camp, analysts said.

By election time - and should the ceasefire remain intact - such voters may in any case return to the Likud, according to experts.

"Netanyahu didn't come out a winner from the Gaza operation. But if it will be quiet on Israel's southern border, people will start to think that he behaved in a smart way as a serious leader and is not one to make quick decisions that end up in disasters," said Mr Shaefer.

In the meantime, Ehud Barak, the country's defence minister - and a key decision-maker on the Gaza attacks along with Mr Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, the far-right foreign minister - seems to have emerged victorious on the political front.

Before the strikes, Mr Barak's tiny Independence party was not slated by polls to be likely to garner the minimum threshold of 2 per cent of the total vote to enter parliament. But polls this weekend showed that Independence may now gain as many as four parliamentary seats.

vbekker@thenational.ae