JERUSALEM — Against a backdrop of the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a recent photo opportunity with foreign ambassadors to send a message meant to be heard at home, as well as abroad.
“Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years,” he said. “All Israeli governments have built in Jerusalem. We’re not going to change that. That’s a natural thing. I want to ask any of you to imagine that you would limit construction in your own capital. It doesn’t make sense.”
Netanyahu was responding to international condemnation of Israeli plans for settlement building on contested West Bank land annexed to Jerusalem, but his words also seemed calculated to resonate with Israeli voters ahead of elections on Jan. 22.
The strategy seems to be working with a public disillusioned by the stalemate in peace efforts with the Palestinians, worried about the ascendancy of Islamist forces brought by the Arab Spring and troubled by the possibility of a nuclear Iran. With no appealing challenger, Netanyahu appears to be the default choice of many Israelis.
Less than a month before the vote, Netanyahu holds a commanding lead in public opinion polls at the head of a joint ticket of his right-leaning Likud party and the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu faction of former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Response to setbacks
Support for Netanyahu remains high despite a series of recent foreign policy setbacks that left him vulnerable to accusations by his rivals that he has deepened Israel’s international isolation and jeopardized relations with the United States.
Last month Israel suffered a stinging defeat when the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to upgrade the Palestinians’ status there to a non-member observer state. Key European allies of Israel ignored its diplomatic pleas and either abstained or voted with the resolution.
When Netanyahu responded by ordering new building in West Bank settlements and advancing plans for a controversial settlement project widely seen as diminishing prospects for a territorially viable Palestinian state, he provoked international condemnation. Washington denounced the moves, and in an unusual step, several European nations summoned Israeli ambassadors to lodge formal protests. More condemnations followed the promotion of the latest building plans in the Jerusalem area.
Yet recent polls show the combined party list led by Netanyahu winning anywhere from 35 to 39 seats in the 120-member Israeli parliament, by far the largest faction when compared to its challengers. The bloc of rightist parties in the legislature would emerge with a strong majority, as compared with parties of the center and left, paving the way for another Netanyahu-led governing coalition.
A survey published this month by the liberal newspaper Haaretz showed that more than 60 percent of Israelis considered Netanyahu more qualified than his main rivals to serve as prime minister. An updated poll published Tuesday by the paper showed Netanyahu far ahead in public confidence in his handling of security, the economy and talks with the Palestinians.