JERUSALEM — Of all the issues at stake in Israel’s election Tuesday, Iran’s nuclear program might have been expected to be high on the agenda, with the vote serving as a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s stance toward Iran, a subject of robust public debate.
But the campaign has largely skirted the issue, along with another that is no less critical for Israel: the impasse in peace efforts with the Palestinians.
After months in which Netanyahu raised the alarm and hinted at possible military action to stop what he warned was Iran’s drive to build a nuclear weapon, the topic has played only a minor role in campaign rhetoric.
A poll published Friday by the liberal daily Haaretz showed that only 10 percent of Israeli voters viewed Iran’s nuclear program as the most important issue they will consider when they cast their ballots.
A majority of those polled, 47 percent, cited socioeconomic issues as their chief concern. About 18 percent cited negotiations with the Palestinians, and 12 percent cited conscription of ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of whom are exempted from mandatory military service to pursue religious studies with government stipends — an arrangement that has caused increasing public resentment.
Netanyahu has tried to focus the campaign on defense and foreign policy, with television ads presenting him as a statesman making Israel’s case to the world while working to protect the country from external foes.
In one clip, he stands before a map of the Middle East, surveying an array of threats and promising that if reelected he would shield Israel with rocket defense systems, surround it with a border fence and prevent a nuclear Iran. Another segment shows a well-known image of Netanyahu from his speech on Iran several months ago at the United Nations, in which he drew a red line with a marker on a cartoon likeness of a bomb.
But aside from those references, Netanyahu has not made Iran the centerpiece of his campaign. Instead, he has focused on stemming a flow of conservative voters to a challenger to his right, Naftali Bennett, whose religious nationalist Jewish Home party has surged in public opinion polls. In the home stretch of a race he is expected to win, Netanyahu is urging voters to fortify his ticket, arguing that only a strong ruling party would enable him to govern effectively.
“Netanyahu has failed to control the agenda, and he has been reactive, not initiating,” said Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communication at Haifa University.
Significant public opposition to a strike on Iran without U.S. support may have played a role in the Netanyahu campaign’s decision not to focus on the issue, according to Gadi Wolfsfeld, professor of political communication at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
“The majority of Israelis don’t want to go to war with Iran, and it seems he came to the conclusion that using the Iran card more would drive some voters away,” Wolfsfeld said.
In a recent front-page newspaper interview, Yuval Diskin, a former head of Israel’s domestic intelligence service, Shin Bet, sharply criticized Netanyahu’s leadership, especially on Iran, accusing him of putting personal considerations above national interests and moving dangerously close to a military confrontation without cabinet approval.
Yet the interview, which was timed to appear before the election, gained little traction in the campaign and was not seized upon by Netanyahu’s main centrist challengers to attack his policies.
“His opponents don’t want to be put in a position where they appear to be weakening the Israeli stance on Iran,” Wolfsfeld said. Lacking Netanyahu’s foreign-policy credentials, some of his rivals also seem averse to taking him on in an area in which they would appear out of their depth, so they have focused on domestic issues.
That has led to an almost total avoidance of the Palestinian question, a conflict that many Israelis have despaired of resolving. Netanyahu has virtually ignored the subject. His two main centrist opponents — Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich and Yair Lapid, who heads a new faction, Yesh Atid, or There Is a Future — have focused on socioeconomic problems, particularly the hardships of the Israeli middle class, to rally support.
The one exception is Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister, who has based her campaign on negotiating a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But given the prevalent disillusionment with prospects for peace, Livni, a centrist and former opposition leader, is promising to work for “a diplomatic settlement” instead.
Seeking to capitalize on the skeptical public mood, a campaign video circulated by Bennett, of Jewish Home, pushes his proposal to annex most of the West Bank to Israel and leave Palestinians in the rest of the territory under limited self-rule.
“There are some things that most of us realize just won’t happen,” the video says. “ ‘The Sopranos’ won’t return for another season . . . and there also won’t be a peace agreement with the Palestinians. It’s just not realistic.”