Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, is expected to vote tomorrow to dissolve itself, paving the way for new elections in March. And the next three months promise to be a struggle by the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, for his political survival.
While the premier was, until recently, thought to be unbeatable, polls now show that a desire for a fresh face and deep concern about Israel’s economy and security situation will likely make this a close race. Nor are Mr Netanyahu’s tense relations with Washington, Israel’s main backer, an electoral asset.
Challenges were mounting on Sunday against Mr Netanyahu both inside and outside his Likud party. Supporters of Gideon Saar, a former Education and Interior Minister who is markedly younger than Mr Netanyahu and would be a new face for voters, began gathering the required 500 signatures to put him on the ballot against the premier in a party leadership contest next month. Mr Saar, a hardliner, has not confirmed his challenge to Mr Netanyahu, but the premier is trying to bring forward the leadership contest, apparently so that Mr Saar would have less time to get organised
Meanwhile, Tzipi Livni, the ousted Minister of Justice and head of the centrist Hatnua party, said she was close to agreement with Isaac Herzog, head of the Labour Party to field a joint list for the election. “We must join forces and create a situation where there is energy and hope. Once there is hope we can replace Netanyahu; it will happen.” she said.
Mr Herzog is unproven and seen by many as being un-charismatic, which could play in Mr Netanyahu’s favour.
Several opinion polls published late last week after Mr Netanyahu precipitated the move to elections by sacking two centrist ministers showed that an overwhelming majority of Israelis do not want him to be PM after the election. In a poll of 500 respondents published in The Jerusalem Post, 60 per cent said they did not want Mr Netanyahu to remain in office, with only 34 per cent saying they did and 6 per cent saying they did not know.
Among politicians, there has also been a loss of faith in Mr Netanyahu, according to Sam Lehman-Wilzig, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “They don’t trust him, they think he’s tired, they think he’s staying in power without vision,” he said. Mr Lehman-Wilzig believes there is a strong possibility that the hard right Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, will prefer this time to ally himself with the centre-left as an alternative to Mr Netanyahu.
If Mr Netanyahu falls, it would not necessarily translate into a revival of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as Mr Lieberman could veto any moves that meet the minimum demands of the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, whom he accuses of waging diplomatic terrorism against Israel.