Tuesday, two days after Barack Obama is officially inaugurated for his second term, another world leader will not only return to power, but with a much stronger mandate as well.
Fourteen years after he lost Israel’s top job and quit politics, and four years after he recaptured his old post as prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu is not only poised to win re-election but to do so in a big way. His Likud (conservative) Party and its coalition of smaller orthodox Jewish and other right-of-center parties should emerge in national elections with a majority in the 120-member Knesset (parliament).
The latest boost to the 63-year-old prime minister known universally as “Bibi” came days ago from across the ocean: Chuck Norris. Much as he did in the 2008 presidential bid for his close friend Mike Huckabee, action film superstar Norris recalls in a hard-hitting TV spot now showing in Israel how he has played a “tough guy,” but now wants to support “a real tough guy in the Middle East—Bibi Netanyahu.” Against a montage of clips showing Netanyahu with soldiers and fighter pilots, Norris hails the prime minister’s leadership of Israel when it is under siege and particularly praises his hard-line against Hamas—the virulently anti-Israel group now in control of the Gaza Strip portion of the Palestinian Authority.
Norris’s spot only underscores the reason that Netanyahu is seen as his country’s best hope when the Arab Spring has increasingly removed reliable allies from power in Tunisia, Yemen, and Egypt. A re-elected Netanyahu is likely to maintain the hard-line that is his signature policy, including a fortified fence with Egypt and expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Such hard-line policies have resulted in a frosty relationship between Netanyahu and Obama. Although White House press secretary Jay Carney insists all is well between the two and that Obama has had more telephone conversations and personal meetings with Netanyahu than any other world leader, it is no secret that the American president would prefer to deal with a less hard-line leader in Israel. During the G-27 meeting in November of 2011, an open mike picked up then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy telling Obama: “I cannot bear Netanyahu—he’s a liar.”
“You’re fed up with him,” replied Obama, “but I have to deal with him more often than you.”
The distance between Obama and a re-elected Netanyahu could grow, many say, because of the exit of the Israeli leader’s defense minister, Ehud Barak. Once Israel’s most decorated soldier and formerly an arch-enemy of Netanyahu (he led the Labor Party to a big win over Likud in 1999 and became prime minister), Barak now leads a smaller party and is a major player in the Israeli Cabinet. In Israeli political circles, the two former foes are dubbed “Batman and Robin.”
Barak’s recent announcement that he was resigning as defense chief is not likely to help U.S.-Israel ties. It is no secret that the Democratic administration in Washington would prefer to work with Barak rather than Netanyahu. During the Democratic National Convention, a film was shown to a caucus of Jewish delegates in which Obama was hailed as the best friend of Israel by Barak and Israeli President Shimon Peres but there was no testimony from Netanyahu.
Certainly nervousness at the new governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and the growing bellicosity from Iran are the major reasons for the likely big win by Israel’s “tough guy” prime minister. But also helping Netanyahu is the fact that his leading opponents in the center and left are all bitterly divided among themselves. Tzipi Livni, a vigorous proponent of a two state solution, was once considered a strong favorite to become Israel’s second woman prime minister. A onetime Mossad undercover agent, she has been likened to “Mrs. Emma Peel,” the dashing secret agent in the hit 1960’s British TV series “The Avengers.”
But Livni was deposed as head of the Kadima (center) Party after its defeat in 2009. Kadima is now headed by former Army Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz and Livni, after a few years in the political wilderness, has re-emerged to head the new Hatnuah (Movement) Party. The Labor Party, home of such political giants as Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin, has gone through a string of leaders. It is now headed by feminist Shelly Yachimovich, a radio and TV news commentator who has never held a cabinet ministry.
All this serves to make very probable on Tuesday what is now only a slogan on Likud campaign posters: “A strong Netanyahu, a strong government.”