Sunday, March 27, 2011

Midterm Report Card - PM Netanyahu Looks Stronger Than Ever

(David years into office is about the time most Israeli governments are fraying at the edges if not already teetering at collapse. But as Netanyahu readies to mark the second anniversary of his government this Thursday, the prime minister’s position looks as strong as ever, analysts and opinion surveys say.

A survey by the Dialog Institute for the daily newspaper Ha’aretz published at the end of last week showed that Netanyahu remains the leader of choice for most Israelis, besting his closest rival, Tzipi Livni, chairwoman of the opposition Kadima Party, by nine percentage points.

The poll found Netanyahu’s Likud Party running neck-and-neck with Kadima in the Knesset, each receiving 31 seats. But the Likud has a wider choice of likely coalition partners and in an election draw would probably be called on to form the government, as happened in 2008 when Kadima was the biggest vote-getter. Together with religious parties and those of the right, the Likud could garner a 68-seat majority in the Knesset.

Israel isn’t scheduled to hold elections until 2012, but governments typically fall long before their term is over, with the average life expectancy at about 23 months.

“If you compare it to what we had in the past, it definitely looks very stable,” Avraham Diskin, who teaches political science at the Herzilya Interdisciplinary Center, told The Media Line. “Netanyahu really invested a lot of effort when they formed the government in all kinds of measures to strengthen the coalition.”

Netanyahu has also presided over a period of relative peace and prosperity. The economy sailed through the global financial crisis with virtually no turbulence. Tensions on its border with Lebanon and Gaza haven’t boiled over into war. And, while Israel suffered two terror attacks in the past two weeks, violence remains very low.

The greatest crisis Netanyahu has to deal with in his first two years was with the U.S., said Dan Schueftan, director of the National Security Studies Center at Haifa University. Ultimately, the prime minister resisted U.S. demands for a lengthy suspension of settlement construction, but the victory came at great cost to relations between Israel and its most important ally.

But Netanyahu faces critical challenges ahead that could rapidly reverse the period of prosperity and relative peace the country has enjoyed since he took office.

Turmoil in the Middle East has undermined allies like Egypt and Jordan. Trouble even among traditional foes, like Syria, could boomerang on Israel in unexpected ways, heightening the risk of conflict or putting into power even more hostile regimes. Recent terror attacks may portend a surge in Palestinian unrest. Domestically, Israel’s economy is at risk to a global downturn spurred by higher energy prices and Japan’s woes.

While Netanyahu’s government is perceived by many abroad as right-wing and hawkish, in Israel Netanyahu succeeded in capturing then political center, analysts said. Netanyahu publicly accepted the idea of Palestinian statehood early in his government and agreed to a one-month settlement freeze, two moves that have distanced him from Israel’s right, Diskin said.

That has cost him some votes, which have drifted to Yisrael Beiteinu, but has almost certainly brought in others, Diskin said. Indeed, in spite of his foot-dragging on peace, Netanyahu probably does accept the need of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians as does the majority of the Israeli public.

“He understands that partitioning the land is inevitable and necessary,” Schueftan of Haifa University said. “I don’t think he has a fantasy of greater Israel. The question is whether he is willing to take the risk.”

Nevertheless, the Israeli voter isn’t particularly enamored of either Netanyahu or his government. While he outscores Livni on suitability as a prime minster, only 44% told Dialog they felt that way about him. Only 39% said they were satisfied with his performance.

“This is a government that is neither hated nor loved. Both parts of the public [the left and the right] see the glass half empty,” Verter writes.