Tuesday, March 26, 2019

JERUSALEM — In the high-wire act that has defined his political career, this week’s events were par for the course for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. Netanyahu cut short a high-profile trip to Washington on Tuesday after a long-range rocket fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip struck a home in central Israel, injuring seven. Just two weeks before elections that could define his political legacy, the Israeli leader was dealt yet another wild card.

The hawkish prime minister was facing an uphill battle to cement his decade-long rule, and the Washington trip was supposed to be a centerpiece of his argument to voters for why he deserved another term.

With President Trump officially recognizing the Golan Heights as part of Israel and Mr. Netanyahu set for a hero’s welcome at a gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the prime minister had a chance to burnish his image and advertise once again his extraordinarily close ties to Mr. Trump and his aides.

Mr. Netanyahu took an opportunity at the Golan Heights signing ceremony at the White House to highlight security threats and said “Israel is responding forcefully to this wanton aggression” by Hamas.

The Gaza crisis likely will give his Likud voters reason to rally around his candidacy, but Mr. Netanyahu faces a major challenge in the April 9 elections. He entered the campaign under a cloud of corruption investigations and now faces an unprecedented challenge from three former Israeli military chiefs of staff who head a major centrist alliance that is polling above Likud.

The opposition said the latest attacks will only raise questions about why a prime minister who has been in power for a decade still has not been able to stop the Hamas missiles.

Yair Lapid, a leader of the rival Blue and White party, said the attacks show that the vaunted Israel Defense Forces have lost the ability to deter such attacks under Mr. Netanyahu’s leadership.

“A terrorist organization can’t determine our daily routines,” Mr. Lipid told Israel’s Army Radio. “Hamas can’t run the show. Hamas can’t decide when the fighting starts and ends.”

Political survivor

Mr. Netanyahu has been in desperate political straits before. In 2009 and in 2015, he faced off against a major centrist party amid tensions with the Palestinians. He triumphed in both cases, either through an election day upset or postelection horse-trading in Israel’s complex multiparty landscape.

A month after former Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz announced the Blue and White alliance with Mr. Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, and three weeks after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced an intent to indict Mr. Netanyahu on corruption charges, the prime minister has consistently trailed by several seats in the polls. In a Channel 12 poll released Monday, Likud was projected to win 28 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, against Blue and White’s 32.

Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign billboards hammer home his closeness to Mr. Trump, and the trip to Washington was designed to underscore his clout and international stature. The prime minister repeatedly emphasized the importance of Mr. Trump’s recognition of the Golan Heights.

“At a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel, President Trump boldly recognizes Israeli sovereignty,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

He tweeted that “Gantz’s fear has been realized,” as if the Golan issue specifically would blunt the appeal of centrists for a security-conscious Israeli electorate.

The stars aligned for Mr. Netanyahu in 2015 when he spoke at a joint session of Congress and at AIPAC against the Iran nuclear deal just before Israeli elections. His remarks infuriated the Obama administration and stirred controversy at home.

Israel is less divided this year, even though foreign media have cast the Golan Heights decision as a clear sign of Mr. Trump’s support for Mr. Netanyahu.

But the Golan Heights may be of limited political utility because of broad consensus that it would be too dangerous to simply return the land to Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Iranian allies. Israel conquered the strategic heights in the 1967 war and annexed them in 1981. The last discussions about returning the Golan Heights to Syria were more than a decade ago.

Polls in early March showed Likud edging ahead, but more recent polls slightly favored the Blue and White coalition.

This points to no real bump from Mr. Trump’s announcement nor any real loss from the potential corruption indictments. Israelis broadly support U.S. policy, according to a Pew Research Center survey last year, but no polls show whether Israelis change their voting preferences based on Mr. Trump’s decisions.

Known quantity

Political analysts say Mr. Netanyahu — who, including a three-year stint in the late 1990s, has held the prime minister’s job for nearly 13 years — is such a known quantity in Israel that recent events can do little to attract or drive away significant numbers of voters, and this election feels more somber than the one in 2015.

As Mr. Netanyahu was hurrying home from Washington on Tuesday night, Israel struck Hamas positions and Hamas responded with rocket fire. Such tit for tat has continued for the past year. In November, Gaza fired more than 460 rockets at Israel.

A stepped-up offensive in the final weeks before the election carries risks for the government, Aron Shaviv, a political consultant and former strategist for Mr. Netanyahu, told The Associated Press, raising questions about the Netanyahu government’s more cautious approach to Gaza in the past four years.

“He would have a hard time explaining why he has changed his approach and why an attack on central Israel warrants a harsh response versus an attack on southern Israel,” Mr. Shaviv told AP.

Despite Mr. Netanyahu’s combative tone in recent television appearances and the rancor and mudslinging between the prime minister and his main rivals, the electorate is largely unfazed.

Likud is counting on the electoral math: Even if the Blue and White coalition wins a plurality of seats, its leaders will have a difficult time forming a coalition with the plethora of right-wing and religious parties that are natural allies of Likud. This is a replay of the election in 2009, when Kadima leader Tzipi Livni could not form a government despite winning one more seat than Likud.

If Mr. Netanyahu can weather the storm until April 9, then he will be in a position to cement his unprecedented long rule over Israel.

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