By Hazel Ward (AFP) – Oct 10, 2012
JERUSALEM — Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday kicked off his re-election bid after calling snap polls that he is tipped to win, presenting himself as the only hope of facing Iran and the world economic crisis.
Following his announcement late on Tuesday that the election was to be brought forward, Netanyahu fired the unofficial starting gun to a campaign expected to see Israelis go to the polls in January or February.
Although he did not give a date for the election, commentators said it was likely to take place between January 22 and February 12, with a date to be determined next week when parliament reconvenes for its winter session.
Netanyahu said he took the decision to bring forward the date after his coalition partners failed to agree on the 2013 state budget, an austerity budget which is expected to spark public anger.
But commentators said Netanyahu had moved to call an early vote in order to capitalise on his current standing in the polls, which show him holding a commanding lead over any potential rivals for the premiership.
According to a poll published at the end of September in the Haaretz newspaper, Netanyahu far outstripped his rivals, with 35 percent saying he was most suited to be prime minister, compared with 16 percent for his closest rival, Labour leader Shelly Yachimovich.
It also showed that the bloc of ultra-Orthodox and rightwing factions, including Netanyahu's Likud, had gained strength and would take 66 of the 120 seats in parliament if the election were held immediately.
Netanyahu's existing coalition, which also includes the centre-right Independence party of Defence Minister Ehud Barak, currently holds the same number of seats.
"The election campaign begins with Netanyahu being perceived as the only one who fills the prime minister's seat naturally," wrote Nahum Barnea in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot daily in a piece headlined: "The Usual Candidate."
Barnea said with no realistic opponent in the field, and the outcome largely known to both politicians and voters alike, parties would focus attention on the only variable -- the make-up of the next coalition government.
"In terms of Israeli democracy, this is an unfortunate reality. Many voters feel that not only is there no one to vote for, there is no one to vote against: Everyone (except for the Meretz) dreams of serving in the next Netanyahu government," he said, referring to a leftwing party.
A similar view was taken by Israel's army radio where one commentator said the election would be "a referendum either for or against Bibi" -- the popular name for Netanyahu.
In his speech which effectively kicked off the electoral race, Netanyahu firmly positioned himself as "Mr Responsible" and the only feasible candidate for handling the threat of Iran going nuclear, the regional instability sparked by the Arab Spring and the global financial crisis.
Writing in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper, commentator Ari Shavit said Netanyahu's policy of doing little had served him well.
"All he offered Israelis was stability: security stability, economic stability and political stability. But since Israel is surrounded by the stormy world economy and stormy Arab world, Netanyahu?s make-no-progress stability turned into a political gold mine," he wrote.
"It allowed its leader to take no real steps and score no real achievement, and turned him into what seems today to be virtually the sole candidate to head the government of Israel."
Opinion polls indicate Netanyahu is well placed to stay in power, although his ratings hit a low point in August after his government pushed through an initial series of austerity measures.
The move sparked public anger and saw Netanyahu's popularity slump to its lowest level since he came to power in March 2009, with 60 percent saying they were not satisfied with his performance, while 31 percent said the opposite.
But it didn't last long.
By the end of September, his ratings had begun to pick up, with 53 percent saying they were dissatisfied, while 38 percent said the opposite, the Haaretz polls showed.
The only possible wildcard in the election campaign is the potential return of former premier Ehud Olmert, who used to head the centre-right Kadima party, commentators said.
"What is driving Netanyahu to the polling stations at almost hysterical speed is Ehud Olmert," wrote Maariv political commentator Ben Caspit.
"He knows that the only one who can give him a real fight, as an equal with an actual chance, is Olmert."
Olmert, along with his Kadima successor Tzipi Livni, and former army chief Gabi Ashkenazi "are a combination that can provide an answer to the Likud in every way," he wrote.
"It is the only combination against which Netanyahu will not be able to wave the Iranian nuclear bomb, because when he does that Olmert will wave the Syrian nuclear reactor," he wrote, referring to a Syrian site allegedly bombed by Israel in 2007 when Olmert was premier.
The difference, Caspit said, was that Olmert "destroyed the Syrian reactor quietly, while Netanyahu can't stop the Iranian one with all his noise."
Olmert stepped down from politics in 2008 over corruption allegations which have largely been resolved.
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