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.
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.
The lack of a credible political challenger and a defiant public mood in the face of foreign criticism, Palestinian diplomatic inroads and rocket strikes from Gaza during the recent conflict there all seem to be working in Netanyahu’s favor. His supporters also cite Israel’s relative economic stability under his leadership at a time of global recession.
“Even his opponents realize that when it comes to experience and qualifications, no one is really close to him,”said Gadi Wolfsfeld, professor of political communication at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. “He has no competition right now.”
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.