JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who appeared to be cruising to re-election a few weeks ago, suddenly appears vulnerable as the country prepares to go to the polls in January.
The political comeback of a popular former foreign minister on Tuesday, coupled with the ruling Likud Party’s selection of an especially hard-line slate of candidates, has suddenly raised questions about Netanyahu’s prospects.
Eager to portray Netanyahu as an extremist, opposition parties see an opportunity to mount a formidable challenge to the Israeli leader.
Ousting Netanyahu remains a formidable task, but the return of Tzipi Livni, who served as Israel’s foreign minister and chief peace negotiator from 2006 to 2009, injected a high-profile name into what had been a lackluster race.
Well respected internationally, Livni immediately took aim at what she called a “leadership vacuum” and promised an aggressive push for peace with the Palestinians.
“I came to fight for peace,” she said. “And I won’t allow anyone to turn peace into a bad word.”
During Netanyahu’s nearly four years in office, peace efforts with the Palestinians have remained frozen.
The Palestinians refuse to resume talks unless Israel stops building settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, occupied areas that the Palestinians claim for an independent state.
Netanyahu blames the Palestinians for the deadlock.
The prime minister imposed a partial freeze on settlement construction early in his term, leading to a brief attempt to resume negotiations.
But Netanyahu refused to extend the construction slowdown, and the talks quickly collapsed.
He says talks should resume without any preconditions.
The deadlock has pushed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to head to the United Nations this week to upgrade the Palestinian observer mission to “nonmember state” status.
The General Assembly is expected to pass the request.
The Palestinians believe the international endorsement, while largely symbolic, will bolster their position if negotiations resume. Israel, backed by the United States, opposes the bid and has been furiously lobbying allies to oppose it, saying all differences must be resolved through negotiations.
In a setback for Netanyahu, France announced Tuesday that it would vote in favor of the Palestinians.
At a time when there are no talks with the Western-backed government of Abbas, Israel this week opened an indirect dialogue with Abbas’ rival, the Islamic militant Hamas movement, as part of a cease-fire that ended an Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip last week. Israel considers Hamas, which seized control of Gaza five years ago, a terrorist group.
“Everything is upside down: a government that negotiates with terrorists and freezes all dialogue with those who work to prevent attacks,” Livni said.
Livni told the audience that the fighting in Gaza, in which her youngest son was mobilized to Israel’s southern front, had factored into her decision to return to politics.
“A week ago when my youngest son, today an officer in the Paratroopers, went down south, I sent him a text message that I had decided to fight on my turf, politics, so that he maybe won’t have to fight on his turf, the battlefield,” she said.
Throughout his term, Netanyahu relied on a handful of moderate figures in his Cabinet to blunt international opposition. Following a pair of events this week, Netanyahu appears to have lost this political cover.
On Monday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak resigned from politics. Barak, a former prime minister, had often served as Netanyahu’s unofficial envoy to Washington to ease tensions with the White House.
Then Monday night, Netanyahu’s Likud Party announced its slate of candidates for the Jan. 22 election.
The list was dominated by hard-line supporters of West Bank settlements. Some candidates have alienated mainstream Israelis with failed attempts in parliament to stifle dissent and rein in a Supreme Court that they believe is too independent. In addition, several prominent moderates were effectively ousted. Netanyahu’s decision to join forces with the ultranationalist party headed by his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has added to concerns that his next coalition will be too hard line for many.
Menachem Hofnung, a Hebrew University political scientist, said the Likud could have a hard time appealing to centrist voters with its new list. “After seeing the Likud’s results, the race is (wide) open,” he said.
Livni, 54, joins a field that includes the centrist Labor Party, led by former journalist Shelly Yachimovich, and the centrist “Yesh Atid,” led by former anchorman Yair Lapid.
While largely similar in ideology, these rival parties have focused largely on domestic economic issues. Livni made clear her new party, called “The Movement,” would focus on resuming peace efforts.
“I decided to give an answer to people who don’t have anyone to vote for,” Livni said. “This party will return this hope that was lost.”
It won’t be an easy task. Recent polls have predicted Likud would be the largest party in the 120-seat parliament and in a strong position to cobble together a majority coalition. The centrist parties remain divided, and their leaders have been reluctant to join forces.
A survey published Tuesday predicted that Livni’s new party would garner just nine seats, Labor would win 20 and Lapid’s Yesh Atid would get only five. That would leave the centrist bloc far short of the 61 seats needed to form a coalition.
In contrast, Netanyahu’s Likud would win 37 seats, making it by far the largest single party in parliament, with hard-line nationalist and religious parties giving it a majority.
The poll by the Maagar Mochot agency surveyed 504 people on Sunday and Monday and had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points. However, the poll was conducted before Livni’s comeback and Likud primary results were announced, so the numbers are expected to change.
Livni herself is the daughter of one of Likud’s founding fathers and entered politics in 1999 as a Likud lawmaker.
But like many other former hard-liners, she has moved over to Israel’s dovish left to confront what many believe to be a demographic time bomb. If Israel continues to control millions of Palestinians, they say, it will cease to exist as a democracy with a Jewish majority. The solution, they say, is establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
As foreign minister, Livni forged a strong relationship with her American counterpart, Condoleezza Rice, as well as the Palestinians. The sides claimed to have made great progress.
Although her legacy was tarnished by criticism over an Israeli military offensive in Gaza in 2009 that left hundreds of civilians dead, she nonetheless remains popular internationally. She has been identified by Time, Newsweek and Forbes magazines as one of the world’s most influential women.
But she has stumbled as a politician. Livni led centrist Kadima Party in 2009 elections after then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was forced to resign because of a corruption scandal.
While Kadima won the most parliamentary seats in that election, Livni was unable to form a coalition and confined to the opposition. Early this year, she was ousted as party leader and left politics. Kadima has steadily lost support since then, and recent polls have forecast Kadima may not win even a single seat in parliament.