December 3, 2014 / 1:00 PM / 4 years ago

'Bibi' looks right to hold on to Israeli power

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - One of Benjamin Netanyahu’s school teachers once described him as “friendly, disciplined and obedient”. Fifty years on, the Israeli prime minister could be forgiven for wishing coalition politics were the same.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers joint statements to the media with his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic (not pictured) in Jerusalem December 1, 2014. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

Barely 20 months after forming his latest government, Netanyahu dismissed two cabinet ministers on Tuesday, accusing them of undermining his authority, and announced new elections, which have been set for March 17, 2015, two years early.

Opinion polls suggest his right-wing Likud party will top the vote and he will have a chance to form a new coalition, although much can change in three months, especially in Israel’s personality-driven politics.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Finance Minister Yair Lapid attend a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem October 7, 2014. REUTERS/Dan Balilty/Pool

Netanyahu, who spent years studying and working in the United States and speaks English with an American accent, is already Israel’s second-longest serving leader. After nearly nine years at the top, spread over two terms, he appears determined to become the longest serving, displacing David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister after the country’s founding in 1948.

A former management consultant with a degree in architecture, “Bibi” Netanyahu has the background of someone who likes order. Yet with 33 governments in 66 years, order is something many Israeli leaders have struggled to impose.

Supporters say Netanyahu, 65, is convinced voters still want his combination of tough talk on security, settlement building on land the Palestinians seek for a state, a no-nonsense approach to Iran and a defense-and-technology driven economy.

Opponents worry the next government will be even more right-leaning than the last, putting Israel on a collision course with the Palestinians and making relations with critical allies such as the United States and the European Union even more abrasive.

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“Because of international pressure, Netanyahu played for a while as a centrist politician,” Menachem Klein, a professor of politics at Bar-Ilan University, said last week. “Now he will move back to his origins on the far right.”

Having jettisoned the most moderate figures in his cabinet, Finance Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu will have to look elsewhere to form a new coalition, as long as he wins the next election.

Klein expects him to forge an alliance with Israel’s two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, while continuing his ties with two pro-settlement ultra-nationalists, Avigdor Lieberman and Naftali Bennett.

But one influential member of Netanyahu’s party, Moshe Kahlon, is threatening to break away and form his own movement, and some opinion polls suggest he could secure as many as 12 seats in the 120-seat Knesset (parliament) if he does.

The upshot is that while Netanyahu may be keen to show his authority and persuade voters he is the right person to lead Israel at a time of regional turmoil and rising domestic unrest, the outlook is far from clear or certain.

Writing by Luke Baker; editing by David Stamp

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