Recent polls show Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finishing a close second in the Israeli parliamentary elections that are to be held on March 17.
Netanyahu and the Likud Party are in danger of being ousted by the center-left Zionist Union – a coalition formed between Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and Hatnua Party leader Tzipi Livini. (Should this union win, they will rotate as prime minister, with Herzog serving the first two years and Livini serving the remaining two years).
72 percent of Israelis say they want a change in government, and 48 percent were against the prime minister continuing his duties, with just 42 percent wanting him to stay on. The latest projections also show Netanyahu’s hawkish right-wing party Likud down to 20 seats in the Knesset (parliament) – the lowest poll numbers seen in the lead-up to the election.
Sensing danger (and probably reading internal polls) Netanyahu delivered a March 3 address to a joint-session of Congress that was shrouded in controversy. The invitation by Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) was seen by many Democratic lawmakers (and American and Israeli citizens) as nothing more than a campaign stunt designed to bolster a fledgling world leader desperate to hold on to his position of power.
By not consulting the White House before extending the invitation to Netanyahu, Boehner drew the ire of several high-profile Democrats. In addition to viewing the speech as a stunt, many members of Congress thought it was a partisan attempt by the Speaker to undermine and weaken the authority of the Obama administration, which was in the middle of nuclear negotiations with Iran. Several legislators – and Vice President Biden – skipped the address.
Citing the proximity of the election, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry did not meet with the Israeli leader during his trip to the U.S.
The plan to give Netanyahu a boost in the polls seems to have backfired, as Israelis were left even more divided by the prime minister’s decision to meddle in ongoing nuclear negotiations and partisan U.S. politics. Zionist Union leader Herzog followed-up with a prime-time speech of his own. Suggesting that Netanyahu failed to move policy or make history as promised, he claimed the only thing accomplished was angering the White House.
“There’s no doubt that that Netanyahu knows how to give an address. But his speech today didn’t stop the Iran nuclear program,” Herzog said. “It did not change US policy, and now Israel stands isolated and alone.”
A cancellation of a campaign event in the adamantly right-wing city of Ashdod is further proof of the peril Netanyahu finds himself in. Ashdod, 16 miles from the Gaza border and known as one of the “development towns” that usually bear most of the Hamas rocket fire, is usually a fierce Likud stronghold. The prime minister cancelled his appearance at the last minute, citing fears of an embarrassingly low turn out from the community of 200,000.
“It’s astonishing,” said an Ashdod local official, who asked not to be named, of the decision to cancel the event in the city where Likud took 36 percent of the vote in the last election. “People in Ashdod, this area, we’re the proud heart of the right-wing. If Bibi’s worried he can’t rally people here he’s in serious trouble on Tuesday [election day].”
For his part, Netanyahu has some theories as to why he’s lagging behind in the polls, with none of them being his doing. In an interview with Channel 2, he lashed out at “European states” who were funding left-wing causes and wanted to force Israel to make concessions against its own interests.
“There are vasts amounts of funds flowing from abroad, millions of dollars,” he said, claiming that “European states and left wing people from outside” Israel were funding non-governmental organizations that encourage Arabs and left wing Israelis to vote.
While careful to not criticizing the U.S. himself, the prime minister employed surrogates to place the blame and attack the United States for his political woes. Minister of Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Yuval Steinitz (a close political ally of Netanyahu) accused elements inside America of joining the Israeli media and the Palestinian Authority in “mobilizing” and “delegitimatizing” the Likud on behalf of the “other side” of the campaign.
The real reason the three-term prime minister is in trouble may be socio-economic. The cost of living has emerged as an issue that’s at the forefront of Israeli citizen’s concerns, with housing costs being a prime example. In late February the state comptroller released a scathing 294-page report blaming the Netanyahu-led government for not doing enough to spur construction. The study also found that between 2008 and the end of 2014 housing costs rose by 55 percent, and accused the Likud of doing little to nothing to make housing more affordable.
With wages remaining more or less stagnant, and housing costs continuing to rise, many Israelis feel priced out of their countries. As a result, poverty has risen at an alarming rate.
An NGO study conducted by Latet found that 29.8 percent of Israelis live below the poverty line, 13.8 percent live in severe poverty and 35.1 percent of Israeli children are poor. Amomg the Arab and ultra-Orthodox population that number rises above 40 percent.
The sentiment among the the populace is one of Netanyahu being focused solely on security concerns – chief among them being Iran and the Hamas-led Palestinian government – to the detriment of citizens who are unable to cope with the high cost of living.
While it’s perceived that Netanyahu and the Likud seem to lack any interest in the economic concerns of it’s citizens, the Zionist Union has put the economy front and center. Many feel that it’s the economy that will cost the Likud seats in the Knesset – they’re simply not in touch with the current needs of the people of Israel.
Citizens are also weary of the almost non-existent negotiations with the Palestinians and constant schisms with other nations in the region. Zionist Union leaders Herzog and Livini are running on a platform of renewing bilateral talks with moderate Arab partners.
The duo also want to settle Israel’s borders, and are open to the idea of a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 six-day war borders.
Taking up another controversial issue among many Israelis, the Zionist Union is in favor of ceasing any building of settlements outside of the settlement blocs, holding the view that it hurts Israel’s international reputation and aids in its isolation.
All of those platforms – opposed by Netanyahu – have been things that the Obama administration has urged and advocated for during its six-year tenure.
Indeed, there has been a tense relationship between Netanyahu and the White House, and some Israeli voters have grown tired of that as well, wanting a reset on the somewhat frosty relations currently existing between them and their nation’s closest ally.
It seems that your average Israeli citizen is more concerned with basic human needs like food and shelter than they are with Iran and Hamas. Tomorrow’s election is being viewed by many as a referendum on the Israeli leader, and “anyone but Netanyahu” has become a commonly heard refrain. The prime minister certainly finds himself in a perilous position.
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