Netanyahu poised for victory Israelis head to the polls

Benjamin Netanyahu seems poised for re-election as Israel’s Prime Minister because of the failure of his opponents to unite behind a viable candidate against him .

The fact that most Israelis no longer seem to believe it is possible to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians may also help him.

The widely held assumption of a victory by Mr Netanyahu in today’s voting comes despite his record.

There is no peace process, growing diplomatic isolation and a slowing economy, and his main ally has been forced to step down as foreign minister because of corruption allegations.

Even so, Mr Netanyahu has managed to convince many Israelis that he offers a respectable choice by projecting experience, toughness and great powers of communication in both native Hebrew and flawless English.

He was also handed a gift by the opposition – persistent squabbling among an array of parties in the moderate camp has made this the first election in decades without two clear opposing candidates for Prime Minister.

Even Mr Netanyahu’s opponents have suggested his victory is inevitable.

“His rivals are fragmented,” said Yossi Sarid, a former Cabinet minister who now writes a column for the Haaretz newspaper. “He benefits by default.”

The confusion and hopelessness that now characterise the issue of peace with the Palestinians has cost the moderates their historical campaign focus.

Many Israelis are disillusioned with the bitter experience of Israel’s unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip in 2005 that led to years of violence.

Others believe Israel’s best possible offers have been made and rejected already, concluding that they cannot meet the Palestinians’ minimal demands.

“There can’t be peace because we’ve tried everything already. All the options have been exhausted. They apparently don’t want to make peace,” said Eli Tzarfati, a 51-year-old resident of the northern town of Migdal Haemek.

“It doesn’t matter what you give them – it won’t be enough.”

He expressed what seems to be a common sentiment. A poll conducted last week in Israel found 52 % of respondents support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as part of a peace agreement.

Yet 62% said they do not believe the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is a partner for peace – and an identical number said it is not possible to reach a peace agreement.

Since most of the Palestinians now live in autonomous zones inside the West Bank and are prevented from entering Israel, and violence has largely subsided, the most attractive option to Israelis seems to be ignoring the issue.

That is what the main opposition party chose to do in this campaign.

Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich has mostly focused on a populist social message in the hope of attracting working-class citizens who might otherwise vote for the hard-liners. In the past, Labor has been the leader of Israel’s peace camp.

Another member of the moderate camp, former TV personality Yair Lapid, argues primarily for ending the costly government subsidies and draft exemptions granted to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox minority.

Only one party with national leadership ambitions, the new Movement formed by former foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has made peace the centrepiece of its campaign. Polls show the party gaining little traction.

Whatever the results for individual parties, the question is whether all the right-wing parties together can secure at least 61 seats of the 120 in parliament, the minimum for a majority coalition.

Although all polls predict they will, several major polls last Friday showed the right with only 63 seats, with 57 for the parties of the centre-left.

Should the right wing and religious parties fail to muster a majority, there will be a scramble on the centre-left to try to form a coalition on their own.

Under such a surprise result, the prime minister could end up being Mr Yachimovich, a former radio journalist who admitted once backing Israel’s Communist party.

Mr Netanyahu has maintained a lead with a message that the country needs a tough-minded and experienced leader to face down dangers including the Iranian nuclear program, potentially loose chemical weapons in Syria and the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Egypt and other countries in the Arab Spring.

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