Is Netanyahu a goner?

Democrats who opposed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress earlier this month wanted to have it both ways. Many claimed that Netanyahu’s speech was a grave miscalculation; it politicized America’s alliance with Israel, and would expose the prime minister as something less than impartial when it came to domestic American politics. This, they said, would reflect poorly on him as a politician and expose his inability to navigate the complexities of American politics. Simultaneously, some on the American left claimed that Netanyahu’s speech would have the effect of boosting his stature at home and might frame the prime minister as a political figure who commands unique influence in Washington.

These two eventualities are mutually exclusive. Whichever way the chips fell, Democrats would be able to claim prescience.

In the ten days that have elapsed since Netanyahu addressed Congress, the fallout from that speech has been relatively limited. A spate of new opinion polls released on Friday with just four days to go before Israelis head to the polls, however, indicate that Netanyahu might not have enjoyed much of a popularity boost from his address to Congress. In fact, these polls show the center-left Zionist Union alliance pulling ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud government.

A poll in the top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper showed the Zionist Union winning 26 of the 120 seats in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, against 22 for Likud.

Other polls for the Jerusalem Post and Maariv dailies, and for Israeli public radio, also showed a four-seat gap, with the Zionist Union taking 25 seats to 21 for Likud.

All the polls showed the Joint List, a newly formed alliance of Israel’s main Arab parties, in third, with 13 seats.

The centrist Yesh Atid of former finance minister Yair Lapid and the far-right Jewish Home were both expected to win at least 11 seats, the polls showed.

Analysts speculate that Zionist Union, a recently created fusion party that merges the left-leaning Labour party with the Tzipi Livni-led HaTnuah party, enjoys its present advantage because of its ability to attract Israel’s centrist and center-left voters. Moreover, while American chauvinists might convince themselves that U.S.-centric issues are foremost on the minds of Israeli voters, pocketbook considerations may be trumping security concerns in the minds of many average Israelis.

On that point, a recent dispatch from Tel Aviv via Newsweek’s Marc Schulman is instructive:

I was in a restaurant this afternoon and witnessed an argument between the owner, his 60-plus-year-old-mother and two regulars. The whole group had previously been Likud supporters. However, today, only the mother still planned to vote for Netanyahu. As a result, she was being attacked by all the others.

The others argued that Netanyahu did not care about needs of the average Israeli; that the security situation has been the same for the last decade and will no doubt be the same for the next decade; Iran has been a threat for the last 10 years and will continue to be for the next 10. Therefore, it is time give someone else a chance to do something about the problems in the country.

In the past, political observers have observed that Israelis say that what matters most are economic factors, but in the end vote based on their fears and security concerns. This time, Israelis may cast their ballots based on the fear that their children will not be able to buy an apartment. That concern may just win out over their fear that an extremely divided Arab world presents any significant threat to their future.

It’s certainly not as though Netanyahu’s speech before Congress is a nonfactor for Israeli voters, but it’s also apparently not the most important aspect for those still deciding on how to vote.

Feeling the heat, Netanyahu has begun to make his closing arguments to the Israeli public.

“If we do not close the gap between the [Zionist Union] and Likud – Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni will be the prime ministers of Israel, backed by the Arabs,” the prime minister recently confessed.

He cautioned right-wing voters against casting their ballots for other right-leaning parties – “like Kulanu, Bayit Yehudi and Yisrael Beytenu” – which takes away mandates from the Likud bloc. This, Netanyahu told viewers, paves the way for Herzog and Livni to form a left-wing coalition.

Netanyahu urged “everyone who wants me to be the prime minister” to vote for his faction. Only then will he be able to build up the country, spur the economy and secure the citizens of Israel, he reassured listeners who tuned in to the interactive videocast.

It’s not at all clear that Netanyahu will retain his role as leader of the Israeli government after March 17. Moreover, the Obama administration may just get the government they’ve always wanted in Jerusalem. Even if Netanyahu can retain control of the government, he will emerge from the elections a diminished figure. Either way, American Democrats will proclaim victory.