x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Netanyahu tries to capitalise on Romney revival

Benjamin Netanyahu said that general elections will take place early next year- a decision that may have been prompted by the latest poll figures for Mitt Romney, a close friend with whom the Israeli premier shares a network of powerful friends

TEL AVIV // The resurgence of Mitt Romney in key US polls in the past few days ahead of next month's US presidential election may also be a boost to the campaign of the Republican candidate's key ally overseas.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the conservative Israeli prime minister, said that general elections will take place early next year, about eight months ahead of schedule. The decision comes a year after peace talks stalled with the Palestinians and amid tensions with Iran over Tehran's nuclear programme.

Speculation has been swirling about growing internal disputes within Mr Netanyahu's ruling coalition but his decision on Tuesday may have been spurred by more than disagreements with coalition partners over next year's state budget and a bid to take advantage of the lack of any significant political rivals.

Analysts said the move may also have been prompted by the latest poll figures for Mr Romney, a close friend with whom the Israeli premier shares a network of powerful friends, including a key US financial backer, the billionaire Sheldon Adelson.

Israeli voters view the US as Israel's most powerful ally abroad and support from a US president may prove beneficial for Israeli politicians, according to analysts. Mr Romney is expected to be less critical than Barack Obama, the US president, of Mr Netanyahu's expansion of Jewish settlements and hard-line approach to the Palestinians.

"If Romney wins, Netanyahu will have a winning card," said Gabriel Weimann, a political scientist from Israel's Haifa University. "It's an ideal match - Romney is very supportive of Netanyahu. Netanyahu is looking at the American elections and is hoping to have a very positive American president on his side."

Israeli media reported yesterday that the Israeli elections may take place as soon as January, instead of the originally scheduled date next October.

Analysts said Mr Netanyahu was also driven to call for a ballot in order to avoid losing support by running for a third premiership following billions of shekels in expected cuts in the state budget, especially in the funds of the education and welfare ministries.

Furthermore, the Israeli premier is looking to benefit from his solid position in opinion polls.

Yesterday, the prominent Dahaf polling institute publicised a survey showing that 64 per cent of Israelis expected the next elections to bring no change in the make-up of the government, suggesting Mr Netanyahu's ruling Likud would stay in power.

"The timing looks good for him," said Gideon Rahat, a political scientist from Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "We have a relatively functioning economy, the social and economic protests have died and opinion polls show his government will return."

The premier, who heads a coalition dominated by pro-settler and ultrareligious parties, is also bidding to take advantage of the significantly weakened political standing of centrist and left-wing parties. Backing for the left and centre has eroded amid a deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian talks on the creation of a Palestinian state.

Nevertheless, the announcement of new elections on Tuesday sparked speculation about the political comeback of two potentially powerful rivals of Mr Netanyahu: Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister beleaguered by corruption scandals, and Tzipi Livni, the ex-foreign minister who was toppled as head of the centrist Kadima party in March.

Mr Olmert, the former Kadima leader who was prime minister from 2006 to 2009, may decide on whether to challenge Mr Netanyahu in the next elections in the coming days, possibly by ousting Shaul Mofaz as Kadima head or emerging with a new centrist movement, Israeli media reported yesterday. Mr Olmert is viewed by analysts as more likely than Mr Netanyahu to reignite peace talks with the Palestinians and possibly with Syria, Israel's northern neighbour.

Haim Ramon, a prominent Israeli centrist political figure, told an Israeli radio station yesterday that he was in touch with Mr Olmert and Ms Livni on the possibility of creating a large centrist party that could challenge Mr Netanyahu.

"In the next two weeks we will succeed in forming an alternative to Netanyahu and we will replace him in the next elections," he said.

Some leading Israeli commentators said yesterday that Mr Olmert may become a serious contender for the premiership. Ben Caspit, a political reporter for the Maariv newspaper, wrote that the premier was being driven "at almost hysterical" speed to new elections because of concern that more time may hand Mr Olmert more public support.

Mr Netanyahu's move was intended "to pre-empt Olmert's comeback, catch his opponents off guard and steal a new term before it's too late", he wrote.

Analysts say the issue of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, stalled amid Palestinian anger over Israel's continued settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank, was likely to play a trivial role in the election campaigns.

Instead, Mr Netanyahu would probably try to shift the public's attention towards security issues like Iran's nuclear ambitions - which he views as the biggest danger to Israel's existence - and away from widespread discontent over the high cost of living in the country, which last year spurred mass demonstrations.