Toronto Star

‘Bibi fatigue’ threatens Netanyahu’s re-election

Israeli prime minister’s party is neck and neck with rivals, struggling with young voters


TEL AVIV, ISRAEL— Crowding the rooftop hall at Likud Party headquarte­rs in Tel Aviv, Benjamin Netanyahu’s aging campaign loyalists waited impatientl­y for his kickoff re-election rally.

When the three-term prime minister emerged half an hour late from a rickety elevator, they surged forward, reaching across a wedge of bodyguards to kiss, hug and pat the silver-haired leader popularly known as Bibi. Netanyahu, 65, waded through a septuagena­rian scrum, gave a five-minute speech and left.

Having served longer than anyone since Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu is struggling to reach beyond the party faithful to younger voters drawn to fresher faces, analysts say. With Likud in a neck-and-neck race with opponents in the polls, the man Time magazine hailed two years ago as King Bibi is putting his skills to the test in the March 17 contest.

“There’s clearly a level of Bibi fatigue,” Hebrew University political scientist Gadi Wolfsfeld said. “Times have changed, the economy has changed, but he’s using the same lines we heard from him 20 years ago.”

While housing and food prices are weighing on Israelis in this election, Netanyahu continues to emphasize the security issues that have been the foundation of past campaigns. The dangers posed by Iran and Islamist radicals are a more frequent theme than reviving an economy growing at its slowest pace since 2009.

With peacemakin­g at an impasse, Netanyahu is losing ground to Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, 42, a former aide and technology entreprene­ur whose Jewish Home party opposes the establishm­ent of a Palestinia­n state. Polls show it winning as many as 17 of parliament’s 120 seats, up from 12.

“Bibi definitely has a problem because young right-wing voters who would have voted Likud in the past are looking at the new guys,” pollster Rafi Smith says. “Bennett knows how to talk to them and he’s pulling away a lot of support.”

Ehud Perry, a 33-year-old executive and longtime Netanyahu supporter, said he and his friends are looking seriously at rivals. While sharing the prime minister’s caution about Arab-Israeli peace prospects, he sees a trail of broken promises most evident in the government’s failure to contain housing prices, which have soared 90 per cent since 2007 while the average annual wage, now $28,000, has risen 21 per cent.

“With young people, he’s in free fall,” said Perry, chief executive of Machshavot Smartjob Ltd., a legal recruiting company in metropolit­an Tel Aviv. “He’s talked for years about helping the middle class and people don’t believe him anymore.”

Israeli voters have dethroned Netanyahu before. Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israeli history, defeated the incumbent Netanyahu in1999. After taking a timeout to earn money on the lecture circuit and as a business consultant, Netanyahu returned as Ariel Sharon’s finance minister and later as opposition leader, rebuilding Likud and returning to the prime minister’s office in 2009. Don’t count Netanyahu out, though. No single party has ever governed Israel without partners, and surveys show Netanyahu is probably best placed to form a new government with other factions who share his skepticism about peacemakin­g with the Palestinia­ns.

“The prepondera­nce of evidence is that even if another party gets more votes than Likud, Netanyahu’s the only one who can put together enough parties for an effective coalition,” said pollster Camil Fuchs, a Tel Aviv University statistici­an.

In 2009, Likud won fewer seats than the Kadima party and it fared worse than polls forecast in 2013. Even so, Netanyahu became prime minister both times by bringing more lawmakers into his coalition camp.

And for the party faithful, Netanyahu still has that magic touch.

“He has charm and charisma like nobody else, like a magnet,” said Tali Argaman, deputy mayor of Tel Aviv’s Givatayim suburb, as she waited for Netanyahu at the Likud rally. “Maybe someone will come along eventually, but in the meantime there isn’t anybody better in the party.”

 ??  ?? Benjamin Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister since David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first.
Benjamin Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister since David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first.

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