x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Netanyahu set for victory at polls

Analysts expect Israeli prime minister to win today's general election and to use it to step up his campaign against Iran's nuclear ambitions and distract from the Palestinian issue. Vita Bekker reports from Tel Aviv

Benjamin Netanyahu, centre, stands with Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, right, and communications minister Moshe Kahlon to make an election eve appeal to wavering supporters ‘to come home’.
Benjamin Netanyahu, centre, stands with Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat, right, and communications minister Moshe Kahlon to make an election eve appeal to wavering supporters ‘to come home’.

TEL AVIV // Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, is expected to win today's general election and embark on a premiership in which analysts say he will step up his campaign against Iran's nuclear ambitions, while avoiding talks with the Palestinians.

That is unless the United States, Israel's staunchest financial and diplomatic backer, pressures him to make concessions towards restarting negotiations.

"Any hope on the Palestinian issue, if there is one, will not come from the new Israeli government," said Neve Gordon, an Israeli political analyst. "The only way to get out of the quagmire is with concerted international pressure, primarily from the US."

Mr Netanyahu has made it clear that Iran would be a central issue should he win re-election, saying as recently as Sunday that stopping Tehran's nuclear programme remained his "main mission".

He views Iran's nuclear aspirations as the main threat to Israel's security, and has repeatedly indicated Israel might launch a strike against Iranian facilities.

But some analysts suggest he may be focusing on Iran to deflect attention from international condemnation of his expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Indeed, Mr Netanyahu has publicly pushed Israel's allies abroad to focus on Iran rather than settlements, telling a group of visiting US senators last weekend that "the problem is not [settlement] building … the problem in the Middle East is Iran's attempt to build nuclear weapons".

Nevertheless, the Israeli leader may not easily stave off possible pressure from Barack Obama, the US president, who had little luck advancing the peace process during his first term. Tensions are reportedly running high between the pair over Mr Netanyahu's support for settlement growth.

Two of Mr Obama's cabinet nominations - the former senator, Chuck Hagel, for secretary of defence, and the Democratic senator, John Kerry, for secretary of state - are viewed as opposing any strike on Iran and eager to advance Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Furthermore, last week the White House did not deny comments by a Jewish-American columnist with close ties to the Obama administration, who had quoted the US president as criticising Mr Netanyahu's character. The article cited Mr Obama as saying "Israel does not know what its own best interests are" and that he viewed Mr Netanyahu as a "political coward".

Analysts said the Arab Spring could also spur progress in peace talks, as countries such as Egypt showed renewed interest in advancing Palestinian statehood and, in turn, applied pressure on the US and Europe to act.

Much, however, depends on how much room Mr Netanyahu has to manoeuvre after the elections and the make-up of his next coalition.

His every move on the peace talks would face challenge within his own party. At internal elections in November, Likud purged its few moderate politicians and replaced them with ultranationalists such as Moshe Feiglin, notorious for once stating that "you can't teach a monkey to speak and you can't teach an Arab to be democratic".

Political allies in his next government may also hamper peace efforts. Public polls published in the mass-selling Yediot Ahronoth newspaper and the liberal Haaretz, both reported Likud's joint electoral ticket with the pro-settler Yisrael Beitenu movement could win 32 seats - down from the two parties' combined 42 spots in the current 120-member parliament.

Such a result would force Mr Netanyahu to team up with other parties to form a coalition that has a parliamentary majority.

One probable partner would be the far-right Jewish Home party, which rejects Palestinian statehood and promotes an Israeli annexation of most of the occupied West Bank. One of the party's campaign videos says: "There are certain things that most of us understand will never happen: The Sopranos are not coming back for another season … and there will never be a peace agreement with the Palestinians."

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political scientist, said that any move by Mr Netanyahu to add Jewish Home to his government would be aimed at conveying a message to the international community on the Palestinian issue.

He added: "It will be a signal that Netanyahu has no intention of making the minimal concessions necessary to get talks going."