Underscoring the notion that all politics is local, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made building in Israel, and some key areas over the Green Line, his campaign theme in advance of the Jan. 22 national elections, despite the almost universal outcry against such a move.
He seems to have read the mood of the electorate in calling for a strengthened Israel, more committed to solidifying its homeland than extending an olive branch to the Palestinians.
The irony is that while the rest of the world views Netanyahu as a right-wing extremist, many of his countrymen see him as insufficiently supportive of settlement growth. Indeed, the newly formed Likud-Yisrael Beitenu merger, while still dominant in the polls, appears to be losing votes not to parties on the left but to those on the right, especially to settlement-growth advocate Naftali Bennett and his Jewish Home party.
Recent surveys show Likud-Yisrael Beitenu getting about 36 seats. That’s six less than they hold in the current Knesset, with Likud at 27 and Yisrael Beitenu, the Avigdor Lieberman-led party made up primarily of Russian Israelis, at 15. (Lieberman, who stepped down as foreign minister in the wake of an indictment, insists he will be acquitted of all charges and back in politics soon, and is still popular among his constituents.)
With the center-left divided among Labor (estimated to win about 18 seats), Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua (9) and popular newcomer Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (11), the strong competition is coming from Jewish Home, with Bennett, a charismatic 40-year-old son of American olim, calling for the annexation of the West Bank’s Area C, the 60 percent of the region Israel still controls.
A leader of the settlement umbrella group Yesha who sold a successful start-up company several years ago and once served as chief of staff for Netanyahu, Bennett accuses the prime minister of not backing up repeated calls for settlement growth with action.
“We should say out loud: There will be no Palestinian state,” Bennett said last week, bluntly expressing his belief that co-existence in the West Bank is working and that the pragmatic solution is for continued ground-up cooperation rather than top-down — and futile — diplomatic efforts.
Such talk makes the international community, including Washington, cringe. But it has traction in Israel, where many people, not just those on the hard right, believe that the peace process is a sham as the Palestinian Authority leadership becomes increasingly confrontational, seeking a rapport with Hamas, and statehood without talking to Jerusalem.
The current polling trends reflect the historical pattern of an Israeli society willing to make compromises for peace when it feels secure, and defiant of world criticism when it feels vulnerable, like now.
How ironic that Prime Minister Netanyahu, seen as an obstacle to peace around the world, is losing ground at home because he calls for a two-state solution and is seen as weak on settlement support.
He seems certain to be elected to another four-year term whether or not the rest of the world approves.