Netanyahu Tries to Fend Off Right-Wing Challenge

The Israeli prime minister responds to the defection of conservative voters to the right.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 11, 2011
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, September 11, 2011 (Getty Images/Tara Todras-Whitehill)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday tried to fend off a right-wing challenge ahead of Israel’s parliamentary election later this month, urging conservative voters to stand by his ruling Likud party and not defect to the right.

In a number of rare local radio interviews, the Israeli leader insisted that the only way for the right to remain in power “is to vote for me.”

Any other vote, by those who want me as prime minister and don’t vote for me, increases the chance that the left will return to govern and lead the country instead of us.

While there is little doubt that Netanyahu’s Likud, running jointly with former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu, will win a plurality of the seats in the next Knesset, the more right-wing Jewish Home party, led by former businessman and settler leader Naftali Bennett, has risen in the polls in recent weeks. Right-wing dissatisfaction with the ruling party stems in part from Netanyahu’s support for a truce with the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza.

Jewish Home is also a more outspoken proponent of Jewish settlement building in territory that is claimed by the Palestinians for a future state.

Bennett’s rise in the polls raises the possibility of a right-wing coalition with Labor instead of the tiny nationalist and orthodox parties with which Netanyahu has governed so far. Even if Jewish Home is more conservative then Likud, it has disliked governing with its smaller cousins on the right.

Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich has more or less ruled out the prospect but will probably be unable to form a left-wing government instead. The liberal Kadima is teetering on the brink of elimination. Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s new centrist party has won support but not enough to challenge Netanyahu for the premiership. The three main parties left of center do win more seats than the combination of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu — between 37 and 41, according to one poll, compared to 34 to 36 for the conservatives.

Yachimovich hasn’t answered Livni’s call for a centrist alliance. Rather in an earlier interview she argued that the budget for settlement construction shouldn’t be reduced in the absence of a peace deal with the Palestinians which suggests that she might be open to a coalition with the right after all.

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