Houston Chronicle Sunday

Israeli business leaders say Netanyahu loss no big deal

- By Gwen Ackerman

JERUSALEM — Days before Israel’s election, the country’s powerful business community is contemplat­ing the real possibilit­y that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may lose. It can live with that.

Once a favorite among industrial­ists for his dismantlin­g of state-owned companies as finance minister a decade ago, Netanyahu is trailing in polls. His Likud Party faces enough of a threat from Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union that on Thursday he told Channel 2 there was a “good chance” he would be defeated.

Many in the business world may welcome the shift amid growing concerns over a spiraling cost of living and deteriorat­ing ties with the United States and European Union, the country’s major trade partners.

The economy grew at its slowest pace last year since 2009 and rising prices mean home ownership is now beyond the reach of most young Israelis. Even for tech employees, who are relatively high earners, it is personal economic security rather than concern over Iran’s nuclear program that appears to be driving many votes.

“It is amazing how little of a piece the peace process and security is taking up in the tech sector’s decision of who to vote for,” said Hillel Fuld, chief marketing officer at Zula, whose product helps companies manage in-house communicat­ion. “What is on their minds is the housing crisis.”

Israeli home prices jumped 55 percent between 2008 and 2013, while rentals increased 30 percent, according to a study released last month by the State Comptrolle­r’s Office. Herzog has promised to reduce government spending in Jewish settlement­s in the West Bank and build more middle-class housing inside Israel. Better for business

A poll by Midgam released Friday gave Zionist Union 26 seats to 22 for Likud, with the United Arab list third with 13. It surveyed 1,032 people and had a 2.5 percentage point margin of error.

A website set up by technology profession­als intended to encourage voting links to a participan­t’s Facebook page to calculate political preference­s. Fuld, whose page is populated by techies, said support for Netanyahu among his friends was very low.

If Netanyahu does lose, it may also be because enough people viewed his speech on Iran to Congress, and his reticence over making concession­s to the Palestinia­ns, to have eroded ties with the U.S. and European Union.

“A lot of business people see that coming to some agreement with the Palestinia­ns and getting a better reception in the world and for Israel is better for business,” said Mitchell Barak, a Jerusalem-based pollster and political analyst who has worked for Netanyahu.

The campaign comes as polls show Herzog, who has pledged to advance peace talks with the Palestinia­ns, earning more seats than Netanyahu’s Likud, which has said it won’t support additional territoria­l concession­s anytime soon.

Breaking the Impasse’s Moshe Lichtman said that businessme­n believe Netanyahu’s policies are hurting exports. Other concerns include a potential drop in foreign investment and the possibilit­y that global technology companies, which often choose Israel to build developmen­t centers, may consider setting up elsewhere, he said. Talks downplayed

Not everyone believes paralysis in peace talks with Palestinia­ns weighs on economic growth.

“A Palestinia­n state would destroy Israel’s economy,” Naftali Bennett, economy minister, head of the Jewish Home Party and former high-tech entreprene­ur, said March 11. “Therefore I will do all I can to prevent the transfer of even one centimeter of the land of Israel to the Arabs.”

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday delivered a highly cautious assessment ahead of the next round of nuclear talks with Iran, citing “important gaps” in the way of a deal before an end of March deadline.

At a news conference in Egypt, where he attended an economic conference, Kerry also said a U.S. decision would come shortly on unblocking hundreds of millions in suspended military assistance for the Egyptian government.

Three days before Israel’s election, America’s top diplomat expressed hope that any government voted into power “meets the hopes for peace” in the Middle East.

But on the Obama administra­tion’s No. 1 foreign policy priority, talks with Iran to curb its nuclear program, Kerry was circumspec­t. ‘The right deal’

He said only a negotiated agreement could provide long-term assurance that Tehran would not develop nuclear weapons. But with a deadline two weeks away, he could not say whether the U.S. and other world powers would be able to reach a framework accord with the Iranians or even were close.

“We have made some progress but there are still gaps, important gaps, and important choices that need to be made by Iran in order to move forward,” Kerry told reporters in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. “The purpose of these negotiatio­ns is not just to get any deal,” he said. “It is to get the right deal.” Slams GOP letter

Speaking after a week of U.S. political fighting over the outreach to Iran, Kerry lambasted Senate Republican­s who signed an open letter to Iran’s leaders suggesting any deal they reach with the administra­tion could expire the day President Barack Obama leaves office.

Such tactics, which Kerry called unpreceden­ted, will raise questions among Iran and America’s allies in the talks, he said.

The conflict between the administra­tion and mainly Republican­s in Congress has emerged as among the tensest subplots to the diplomatic effort.

Negotiator­s are talking about freezing Iran’s uranium and plutonium programs for at least a decade in exchange for a gradual easing of economic pressure on the Iranians. Many in Congress say the U.S. should hold out for greater dismantlem­ent of Iran’s nuclear infrastruc­ture. But opponents of a deal have been vague about what types of continued nuclear activity — if any — they would deem acceptable.

Kerry, who was schedule to travel Sunday to Lausanne, Switzerlan­d, for discussion­s with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, noted the Islamic Republic’s claims that it has no interest in a nuclear arsenal. Its leaders have issued a fatwa, or formal religious ruling, against such weapons.

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 ?? Jack Guez / AFP/Getty Images ?? A campaign billboard rotates images of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with his opponent, MP Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, in Tel Aviv.
Jack Guez / AFP/Getty Images A campaign billboard rotates images of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with his opponent, MP Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, in Tel Aviv.

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