Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: EPA/JIM HOLLANDER
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Picture: EPA/JIM HOLLANDER

Tel Aviv — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is heading into Israel’s third back-to-back election struggling to recoup the hundreds of thousands of votes his party has lost since the country descended into political gridlock a year ago. It could be tough to finally defeat his challenger without them.

In recent weeks, Netanyahu has parleyed at the White House and the Kremlin, met once-hostile Muslim leaders now seeking better relations with Israel, and touted a consumer-friendly economic programme trying to boost his party’s showing in the March 2 vote.

But even then, most polls consistently showed his Likud party slightly trailing former military chief Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White bloc, even after the prime minister pulled out his Trump card: winning US approval to annex war-won territory the Palestinians want for a state.

President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, which allows Israel to extend its sovereignty over 30% of the West Bank, thrilled many in Netanyahu’s right-wing camp and was supposed to be the springboard that would finally catapult him to victory after two inconclusive elections. That excitement quickly soured after the Trump administration said the process could take months, and wouldn’t begin before the vote, as Netanyahu had promised.

Leaders of Israel’s right-wing now doubt that their decades-long dream will ever materialise at all, and that could cost Netanyahu support.

Why would someone from the settlements “vote for Netanyahu a third time if he doesn’t see anything tangible happening?” Israel Ganz, head of the Mateh Binyamin council — one of the regions waiting to be annexed — said in an interview in his West Bank office. “The prime minister has to understand that in order to get people out of their homes they have to see something happen. Call Trump and say, ‘If you don’t give me anything, I’ll lose the elections’.”

With his campaign failing to gain traction, and voters burdened by election fatigue after three ballots in 11 months, Netanyahu’s messaging has shifted to turnout, much as it did in the last gasp of his 2015 campaign, when he whipped up 11th-hour support by warning of Arab voters coming out “in droves”. New polls showing Likud edging ahead, though the shift is not enough for the right-wing camp to form a government.

“At the moment, the shift is fairly small and doesn’t change the overall picture,” said Simon Davies, a Tel Aviv-based pollster at Number 10 Strategies. “Netanyahu will hope it is an indicator of a growing trend over the next week, though he will also worry it galvanises higher turnout among Blue and White supporters.”

Likud lost about 300,000 votes last election, even after it swallowed up one rival party and persuaded a second to drop out of the running. If stay-at-home Likud supporters come out to the polls this time to recoup that loss, “we’ll cruise to victory”, Netanyahu said in an interview with Army Radio last week. The 300,000 supporters he spoke of would roughly equal eight more seats in Israel’s 120-member parliament.

Netanyahu’s nationalist and religious camp is as many as seven seats short of a parliamentary majority, according to polls published last week. Pollsters cite a mix of apathy and discontent with the Israeli leader, who goes to trial on March 17 to face bribery and fraud charges.

If the surveys don’t bode well for Netanyahu, then they don’t show a clear pathway to power for Gantz, either, even after two closely spaced revotes.

“Everything is so baked in now that it’s very difficult to see movement anywhere on the map,” Davies said.

“The game is going to be played out in the horse trading” during coalition talks, he said.

Bloomberg