As Israelis prepare to vote, struggling Netanyahu puts legacy on the line in bid for 4th term



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JERUSALEM — As Israelis prepare to vote in parliament elections on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself at a fateful crossroads: Make history or become history.

If Netanyahu can lead his Likud Party to victory and secure a fourth term in office, he will move closer to overtaking the nation's iconic founding father, David Ben-Gurion, as the longest-ever serving premier — and cementing a status as the dominant Israeli politician of the past two decades.

But if Likud stumbles and finds itself in the opposition — a real possibility, according to recent polls — the Netanyahu era could end with a resounding thud, concluding a career that many would say brought few major accomplishments beyond longevity. Iran and the international community seem headed toward a nuclear deal that Netanyahu abhors, and a resolution to the Palestinian issue seems as distant as ever.

"If he leaves office, he won't leave any dramatic changes," said Yoaz Hendel, a former aide to Netanyahu. In a turbulent region, one could say "this is the best thing to do," Hendel said.

The Israeli campaign is widely seen as a choice between two world views: Netanyahu's focus on Israel's many security challenges — he has long been a voice calling for zero tolerance of terrorism — or his opponents' focus on Israel's social problems and high cost of living. It also touches on his support for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which the opposition and the outside world detest.

But on a basic level, the campaign is simply a referendum on Netanyahu, a polarizing character who is adored as "King Bibi" by his supporters and reviled by his detractors.

The son of a Jewish historian, and scarred by the loss of his brother in a 1976 Israeli commando raid on a hijacked airline in Uganda, Netanyahu often portrays himself — and his country — in historical terms. He laces his speeches with references to Jewish history, tales of Jewish heroism and warnings that Israel's most sinister enemies lurk around every corner. The main target of his diatribes, Iran, is often compared to biblical enemies and even the Nazis.

"The days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over," Netanyahu said in a controversial speech to the U.S. Congress earlier this month. "We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves."

It was vintage Netanyahu, delivered in flawless, American-accented English — developed during a childhood in Philadelphia and later as a university student at MIT — and with the gifted oratorical flourish that has made him prominent on the international stage.

His stern rhetorical style, often drawing comparisons to Churchill, has served him well during a three-decade career that has included time at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, as ambassador to the United Nations, a series of senior Cabinet posts and a stint as opposition leader. He has spent a total of nine years as prime minister since 1996, and if he can keep the post through mid-2019, he will become the country's longest serving premier.

But after enjoying a surge of popularity following last summer's war against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu is struggling.

Despite the speech to Congress, his efforts to halt the Iranian nuclear program — which he describes as the mission of his lifetime — appear to be stumbling as the U.S. seems to move toward a deal with the Islamic Republic.

The speech, delivered over White House objections, has worsened an already troubled relationship with President Barack Obama, boding poorly for the final two years of Obama's term if Netanyahu is re-elected.

Peace efforts with the Palestinians made no headway during the past six years, and Netanyahu has backtracked from his earlier support for a Palestinian state. Yet he has not offered an alternative vision for resolving the festering conflict. Exasperated by years of deadlock and fighting, the Palestinians are preparing to file war crimes charges against Israel after the election.

His opponents, meanwhile, have hammered his record on the economy, citing the widening gaps between rich and poor, and portrayed him as out of touch.

Although Netanyahu is still seen by the public as the candidate more suitable to be prime minister, based on his image as the "responsible adult" running the country, the gap between him and his main rival, Isaac Herzog, is closing, according to recent opinion polls.

More importantly, Herzog's Zionist Union has edged ahead. A poll conducted for the Haaretz daily published Thursday, for instance, forecast 24 seats going to Herzog's party, compared to 21 for Likud. The poll, conducted by the Dialog agency, interviewed 714 people and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Since Israelis vote for parties, not individual candidates, Herzog could be given the first chance to put together a majority coalition in the 120-member parliament. A poor finish for Likud could set the stage for an internal party coup.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has appeared increasingly rattled, giving a series of interviews to Israeli media after largely shunning them for years. One TV station, Channel 10, decided not to interview him after he refused to speak to their political correspondent, Raviv Drucker, a vocal critic of the prime minister.

In an interview Sunday, Netanyahu complained of a "worldwide" conspiracy funneling millions of dollars to oust him. "Those sending the money, they don't think about our problems here in Israel," he told the Army Radio station. "They want one thing. They want to make sure the left rises to power."

Yossi Beilin, a dovish former Cabinet minister and longtime rival of Netanyahu's, described the prime minister as a "complicated" man who truly believes in worst-case scenarios. He compared Netanyahu to the late Yitzhak Shamir, a prime minister who maintained the status quo at all costs.

He said Netanyahu's priority has always been "to manage the situation, manage the conflict, manage the economy ... When people like to remember what he really did, they will always hesitate as if they forgot something," Beilin said.

Hendel, Netanyahu's chief spokesman from 2011-2012, said his former boss can point to some key accomplishments: He built a fence along the Egyptian border that has halted an influx of African migrants. He helped guide Israel through the aftermath of the 2008 world financial crisis. His warnings about Iran's nuclear program — and threats to attack it — pushed the issue on the international stage.

But Hendel said he believes that if Netanyahu leaves office, he would not be satisfied with the outcome of the two most pressing issues: Iran's nuclear program and the lack of resolution with the Palestinians.

"He has a deep connection to history, and a deep vision of history, and his role in Israeli history," Hendel said. "What he left to the generations after him regarding those issues, I'm not sure that he's quite glad with the current outcomes today."

Shlomo Avineri, a political scientist at the Hebrew University and a former director general of Israel's Foreign Ministry, called Netanyahu "a good speaker but a very bad doer."

He said the standstill in peace efforts, the soured relationship with the U.S., the high cost of living, the emerging international deal with Iran and even last year's war against Hamas — which dealt the group a heavy blow but left its military structure largely intact — all are disappointments for Netanyahu.

"You're being judged on your record," he said.


Associated Press writer Ian Deitch contributed to this report.

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