Analysis: Netanyahu gears up for three main challenges

Likud head needs to pass primaries swiftly, maintain his high standing in polls, mend his public image.

netanyahu fists 298 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
netanyahu fists 298 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Binyamin Netanyahu has three major problems right now. The most immediate one is how to make the two weeks until the August 14 Likud primary pass quickly, with minimal damage to his and the party's image. He is worried that the fact that his main opponent is the ultra-right-wing Moshe Feiglin will allow his rivals and the media to tar the entire party with the same extremist brush. His second problem is how to maintain the momentum he has been enjoying in the polls over the last year. With the publication of the final Winograd Committee report postponed to an unknown date and even then no certainty of the government falling, the prospect of early elections in 2008 has receded, though not disappeared. Netanyahu is now contending once again with Labor chairman Ehud Barak for the role of the great white hope and who knows, perhaps a resurgent Ehud Olmert will once again pose a threat to his electoral hopes. His third problem isn't new, but it remains Netanyahu's main long-term challenge; how to change the negative image most of the public still has of him. In the most optimistic polls, he still fails to break the one-third-of-the-electorate threshold. While still the front-runner, these results don't guarantee him victory in the next election, and even if he were to win, he would find it extremely difficult to build a stable coalition. To ensure his return to power, Netanyahu has to earn the trust of the crucial middle ground, those voters who are still not convinced they want to see him back as prime minister. The unveiling of Netanyahu's education agenda is the first sign of an emergence of a long-term strategic plan designed to address all these problems. Over the last year the public anger over the Second Lebanon War was enough to make the Likud leader, who had barely managed 10 percent of the vote a few months earlier, suddenly the most popular candidate for prime minister. But now it's Barak who is filling the post of Mr. Security; as he repeated hundreds of times during his own primary campaign: "Who do you want to see leading the country in the next war?" If Barak is the answer, then Netanyahu has to change the question. Now is the time for a civilian agenda and Netanyahu has another reason for launching that agenda right now. The Likud primary might be a liability as it could draw attention to the elements in his party he would prefer to forget exist, but the vote is also an opportunity to start electioneering on a grander scale. Instead of laying into party rivals, Netanyahu is taking his general election campaign for a test drive in the hope it will catch the nation's attention. Netanyahu, of course, would love to run on a civilian agenda, highlighting his success as finance minister, but he realizes it's a dangerous course. Of course he's still convinced that he singlehandly saved the economy, but the focus group results and polls that he constantly reads still show that many of his potential voters continue to blame him for the hammering their paycheck took a few years ago. Things have got much better since then and Netanyahu can take much of the credit, but it's still too big a risk to run an election on this. He tried it last time and Likud made its worst showing in over 50 years. But education is a consensual issue; everyone wants the best schooling for their kids. Netanyahu is trying to do what his ideological arch-enemy, Labor's Amir Peretz, did in the last election and try to dictate a new social agenda. Elections in Israel, as Peretz learned, are always won on matters of security and diplomacy. Can Netanyahu be the first to change that with his education plan and other initiatives he is promising to reveal soon? Or is the new agenda simply a diversionary tactic and he also will revert to type in time for the election.