February 5, 2009 / 5:04 PM / 9 years ago

Israeli far-right saps Netanyahu strength

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Israelis might be turning to the right after a Gaza war that deepened security concerns, but hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, front-runner in next week’s election, fears many of their votes will go to a hardline rival.

Opinion polls show that his former aide, Avigdor Lieberman, an immigrant from the former Soviet Union who leads the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu (Our Home is Israel) party, is siphoning off support from Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud.

So the man everyone in Israel calls "Bibi" shifted focus in an Israel Radio interview on Thursday and took aim at his traditional backers rather than snipe exclusively at the ruling, centrist Kadima party.

"Any vote for a party in the national camp that is not Likud, strengthens Kadima. Only a vote for Likud will enable the failing Kadima government to be replaced," Netanyahu said on Israel Radio.

A radio commentator said the former prime minister sounded as if he was "under pressure" from the far-right.

A survey published hours later gave Yisrael Beiteinu its strongest numbers yet. The party advocates swapping land on which many of Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens live for West Bank Jewish settlements in a peace deal with the Palestinians.

The Globes/Geocartographia poll forecast Yisrael Beitenu would take 21 of parliament’s 120 seats in the Feb. 10 election, creeping closer to Kadima, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, with 23, and Likud with 26.

Lieberman’s party won 11 seats in the previous election in 2006 and, just before Israel launched its 22-day Gaza offensive on Dec. 27, it was projected to capture the same number in next Tuesday’s election.


Netanyahu underscored his message with an admonition to any right-wing voters who believed they could afford to back Lieberman because a Likud victory was a sure thing.

"This phenomenon has to end," Netanyahu said. "Nothing is certain, especially if votes are scattered to satellite parties — that would weaken Likud and only Kadima would gain."

Under Israel’s electoral system, voters cast ballots for a party list of parliamentary candidates. The 120 seats in parliament are allocated in proportion to the number of votes parties receive.

Traditionally, the leader of the party that wins the most votes is asked by Israel’s president to try to form a government. No one party has ever won control of parliament on its own, and the country has been ruled by coalition governments since independence in 1948.

Political analysts said that even if Likud ended up in first place with fewer seats than predicted, it would form a strong right-wing coalition with Yisrael Beiteinu and include a smattering of religious and nationalist parties in the alliance.

Such a partnership could hamper efforts by new U.S. President Barack Obama to reach a deal on Palestinian statehood in negotiations between Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Netanyahu has pledged to continue the talks, renewed by the Kadima-led government in 2007, but has said he would concentrate on boosting the Palestinian economy rather than tackling territorial issues that have defied resolution so far. (Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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