Analysis: Netanyahu gallops on while peacemaking stumbles

JERUSALEM Tue Jul 5, 2011 12:44pm BST

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The last time an Israeli prime minister led a government that served out a full four-year term, Ronald Reagan was just settling into the White House.

Political in-fighting and, in one case, an assassination, have cut short the governance of Israeli leaders who formed fragile coalitions after elections in which no party in Israel has ever won an outright parliamentary majority.

Now, for the first time since Menachem Begin's right-wing government completed its 1977-1981 term, another Likud party leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appears to be on course to defy the odds, riding on strong economic indicators.

Past the mid-way point after a 2009 election, Netanyahu's Likud-led bonding of religious and right-wing parties as well as legislators who broke away from centre-left Labour, shows few signs of fracture before the next vote due in 2013.

With U.S.-backed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks frozen, relative quiet along Israel's borders and a strong economy, there has been little to jolt the coalition or the electorate.

A paucity of opinion polls in the third year of the Netanyahu government is arguably one of the clearest signs that Israelis are not about to bid farewell to 'Bibi' any time soon.

A rare poll last week forecast that if elections were held now, Likud would win 32 of parliament's 120 seats -- up from 27 in the 2009 vote but still short of a governing majority -- compared with 29 for the main opposition centrist Kadima party.

Assuming Netanyahu could keep his current coalition partners, he would emerge from the ballot with about 66 parliamentary seats, the same number his government now controls, according to the survey.

LULL

"The political system hasn't had such a period in ages," said commentary accompanying the poll conducted by the Yisrael Hayom newspaper, often supportive of Netanyahu, and Hagal Hahadash polling company.

"After the relentless maelstroms that characterised previous governments, which worsened after two years in power, Netanyahu's government is characterised primarily by a lull, a political lull, a diplomatic lull, a security lull."

Critics accuse him of pandering to ultranationalists in the coalition, mainly his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, to keep the alliance together rather than pursue peace compromises.

Economics also tell the story: the economy grew 4.8 percent in 2010 and is forecast by the central bank to grow 5.2 percent this year. Unemployment is at an all-time low of 5.8 percent.

"You may love or hate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but there is no arguing with his success," commentator Aluf Benn, citing economic growth and political stability, wrote in Haaretz, a left-wing daily.

"The people prefer Netanyahu's diplomatic standstill and security restraint to the policy of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, which combined diplomatic daring with military adventurism," Benn wrote.

He was referring to Olmert's offer to the Palestinians of an Israeli pullout from much of the occupied West Bank and territorial swaps in exchange for major Jewish settlement blocs. On the battlefront, Olmert spearheaded a controversial 2006 war in Lebanon and a 2008 invasion of the Gaza Strip.

A similar land-for-peace proposal by U.S. President Barack Obama was publicly rejected by Netanyahu at a frosty photo-op in the Oval Office during a visit to Washington in May.

PRESIDENTIAL TROUBLES

With Obama plagued by domestic economic woes and wary of alienating U.S. Jews strongly supportive of Israel, there appears to be little incentive for tough pressure on Netanyahu to bend in the run-up to the president's 2012 re-election bid.

And Netanyahu is well aware of the political risks he faces at home in any peace initiative with the Palestinians. His first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, was truncated by the collapse of his coalition over an interim peace deal.

At home and abroad, Netanyahu has cultivated an image of a pro-active leader who is not afraid of taking on challenges, embracing Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to highlight his work.

A major forest fire erupted in Israel: Netanyahu was at the scene to oversee efforts to extinguish the blaze and telephoned foreign leaders for help in getting aircraft to tame the flames.

Palestinians announced a plan to seek U.N. recognition of a state in September: Netanyahu embarked on a series of visits to Europe to try to persuade leaders to join the United States and Israel in opposing the unilateral bid.

Israel's ties with Turkey soured after Israeli commandos raided a pro-Palestinian flotilla bound for Gaza in May 2010 and killed nine Turks in clashes with activists wielding clubs and knives: Netanyahu stepped up his courtship of Greece, Turkey's long-time rival.

That diplomatic drive appeared to have paid off for Netanyahu this week after Greece banned another convoy from leaving its ports for the Hamas-controlled Palestinian enclave.

But Netanyahu's detractors say he must do more to do more to achieve peace.

"It's easy to say there is no (Palestinian) partner to talk to," Kadima leader Tzipi Livni said in a speech last month. "The worst decision ever is not to do anything -- but it's not too late."

(Editing by Crispian Balmer)