Among several party leaders challenging Netanyahu, only Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister, has proven foreign policy experience. Shelly Yachimovich, the leader of the center-left Labor party, which polls show would become the second-largest faction in parliament, is a former radio host with only a few years of service as a legislator. A former defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, heads the Kadima faction, but it has been decimated by the desertion of key members and according to the polls would barely pass the threshold for a parliamentary seat.
“There’s no one out there who is any better,” said Marinette Abu, a retired cosmetician, explaining her support for Netanyahu. “He has experience with America and the United Nations. They want to climb on our backs, but that won’t happen.”
Avishai David, another Netanyahu voter, said he saw him as “strong and dependable, a person who speaks his mind without pulling any punches.”
With the popular mood drifting to the right, Netanyahu is fending off a challenge from a newly invigorated religious nationalist party, Jewish Home, a pro-settlement group that polls show could win as many as 13 parliamentary seats, emerging as the third-largest faction.
The party’s new leader, Naftali Bennett, an officer in the military reserves, caused an uproar when he suggested last week that he would refuse orders to evacuate settlements, a statement promptly seized upon by Netanyahu, who said it disqualified his rival from joining a future government.
“Israelis are currently in a circle-the-wagons mentality,” said Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “The perception is that the world doesn’t understand our situation, we are surrounded by hostile neighbors . . . and the fact that we are being condemned creates a vicious circle in which we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. So if we’re going to get hit regardless of what we do, at least we should elect someone who will stand strong.”
Netanyahu’s recent promotion of settlement expansion plans are widely viewed in Israel as part of an effort to appeal to his political base and woo right-wing voters, even as many of the projects remain months or years away from implementation.
Guy Lony, a bakery owner who plans to vote for Netanyahu, said he was not troubled by the international criticism of the settlement push or by the strains it has put on relations with Washington.
“We have to build in Jerusalem, where there’s a housing shortage, and we need to look out for our own interests, not those of the Americans,” he said. “We don’t have to curry favor with them. We should do what is good for us.”
Attuned to that sentiment, Netanyahu asserted in an interview broadcast Saturday on Israel’s Channel Two television that the international community respected a resolute stance, a quality he said drove Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, when he declared independence in 1948.
Asked by the interviewer what his own legacy would be, aside from honing Israel’s defenses against external threats, Netanyahu evoked what remains a prevalent perception among many Israelis.
“We are in a continual struggle for our existence,” he said.