Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is aggressively moving forward with settlement construction plans in East Jerusalem, appealing to his conservative base ahead of next month’s elections and alienating much of Europe and the West.
Having had to endure the resignation of his ally and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, a hawk who represents the most extreme elements in his center-right coalition and is known for thumbing his nose at the European Union, Netanyahu is doing essentially the same thing himself, which could help keep the Eastern European immigrants and other hardliners who adore Lieberman in the fold. This is especially important after the entry into the race of Tzipi Livni, the center-left candidate and former foreign minister who actually outpolled Netanyahu almost four years ago, only to fail to cobble together a majority coalition in the Knesset. Livni has made clear her campaign is about the Palestinian peace process and little else — and Netanyahu wants the Israeli right solidly behind him to ward off the challenge from a well-known and respected figure.
Public opinion polls give Netanyahu and his coalition the edge, as they have for months. What we don’t know is whether Livni’s peacenik campaign can pick up steam in the final stretch, and whether Netanyahu’s increasingly distant relationship with the West, whose leaders are concerned settlement expansion will doom peace talks, will backfire at home. The left is plagued by its own divisions — there are several candidates appealing to middle class economic anxiety who threaten to siphon off chunks of the vote, preventing a unified opposition from mounting a more potent challenge at the polls. Netanyahu’s fate, then, rests on Livni’s ability to rally the anti-Netanyahu vote around her, the salience of the peace talks in the minds of voters, and how Israeli moderates react to Europe’s growing condemnations.