Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Netanyahu's Big Lead Carries Risk ; Presuming His Victory Is Assured, Some Backers Drift toward Niche Parties

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Netanyahu's Big Lead Carries Risk ; Presuming His Victory Is Assured, Some Backers Drift toward Niche Parties

Article excerpt

Two weeks before national elections, Israel's incumbent prime minister is battling a problem that, at first glance, may seem enviable: Everyone seems sure that he will win.

Can a candidate ever be too far in the lead for his own good?

As Israel's election campaign begins in earnest with a two-week blitz of television ads, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is battling a problem that, at first glance, may seem enviable: Everyone seems sure that he will win.

In Israel's multiparty, coalition system of government, that presumption has led many of Mr. Netanyahu's traditional supporters to flirt with smaller parties that cater to special interests.

A whopping 81 percent of survey respondents expect him to serve another term, according to a poll conducted by Dialog and published last month in the newspaper Haaretz. Yet surveys ever since have shown that support is slipping for the joint list of candidates Mr. Netanyahu heads, from its current 42 of Parliament's 120 seats to as few as 32.

"That's the danger of being a front-runner: When everyone assumes he's going to win, they feel like they have the luxury of voting their real ideology," said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political communication at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. "Ironically, what he's trying to do is prove that the left really could win. If he can somehow undermine that certainty that he's going to win, then of course he has a realistic chance of bringing some votes back."

Political analysts and some people inside the campaign say that this challenge has been compounded by a lackluster campaign, infighting and a series of strategic errors that include criticizing other conservatives. Although Mr. Netanyahu is still the favorite to form the next government, experts predict that he could end up with a relatively slim majority in Parliament, rather than a broad unity coalition that would give him freer rein to set policy and define his legacy.

"Somewhere between disastrous and catastrophic" is how Sam Lehman- Wilzig, deputy director of the school of communication at Bar-Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, described the incumbent's campaign so far. "There's no 'there' there. It's a pure emotional 'we don't want the left in power' and 'trust me' and 'I have experience and that's why you should vote for me.' I don't think that's going to enthuse a lot of people."

Mr. Netanyahu's allies and campaign aides acknowledge that the past month has been rocky, but they said the next two weeks would be what mattered. "The only poll that we are looking at is the election results on Jan. 22," said one senior official, promising a "much more focused" message in the homestretch.

Critics say the first major mistake was the decision to merge Mr. Netanyahu's Likud party with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu. That, combined with a Likud primary that ousted several popular moderates, alienated some centrist voters, the analysts said. Then, as right-wingers flocked to Naftali Bennett, the charismatic young leader of the new Jewish Home party, Mr. Netanyahu attacked him as well as the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a longtime political partner. Both attacks seem to have backfired.

Some analysts and people inside Likud-Beiteinu complain that the prime minister has been too quiet and reactive and that his recent push on Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank put the Palestinian conflict at the center of the campaign, forcing the Iranian nuclear threat, on which he is stronger, into the background.

In most of these cases, "you can see the fingerprints of Finkelstein," said Gabriel Weimann, a professor at the University of Haifa who specializes in political communication, referring to the U. …

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