- - Sunday, August 18, 2019

JERUSALEM — It’s exactly one month before his second try at a fifth term, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest campaign ad finds him in an unusual setting: the beach.

It may seem an odd choice for a hawkish politician who styles himself as Mr. Security, but the playful message is unmistakably clear: As his fellow Israelis enjoy the summer heat, Mr. Netanyahu portrays a lifeguard in the ad, always vigilant in protecting the nation.

Even with an energized opposition and persistent personal ethics woes, that looks like another winning message for Mr. Netanyahu in the Sept. 17 national election.

“In the stormy waters of the Middle East, it’s vital that Israel be an island of stability,” the prime minister says in the election spot.

But as Mr. Netanyahu — to the frustration of his leftist critics at home and abroad — appears to be coasting comfortably to another victory for his Likud party next month, he faces the same challenge he could not meet after a similar victory in April: finding enough allies among the smaller right-wing and religious parties to cobble together a workable governing coalition.

But with polls showing neither the left nor right with a clear majority, and with Mr. Netanyahu ruling out a broad centrist coalition, the shift of just a few seats as Israelis begin to focus on the vote will likely spell the difference between another term for the man known as “Bibi” or a complete scrambling of the country’s political landscape.

“Unless there is a dramatic shift in voter intentions in the last few weeks of the campaign, it looks like Israel will be faced with a conundrum on September 18 when we wake up and study the final results,” analyst Mark Weiss wrote last week in The Jerusalem Post. “Coalition-building this time may require a higher level of creative thinking in order to restore to Israel the political stability it so desperately seeks.”

President Trump, who has forged a close relationship with Mr. Netanyahu, will no doubt be watching the election returns closely. The Trump administration hopes to unveil its “deal of the century” for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, and tensions with Iran, the archenemy of both Washington and Jerusalem, are surging again.

The do-over election Sept. 17 will be drearily familiar to voters. In an unusual move for Israeli politics, Mr. Netanyahu opted for a second national election in six months after failing to put together a majority coalition in the Knesset.

The Blue and White challenge

Likud’s main rival, once again, will be the fledgling center-left Blue and White Party led by former head of Israel Defense Forces Benny Gantz, which is directly challenging Mr. Netanyahu’s security argument.

The Blue and White Party responded to Mr. Netanyahu’s lifeguard spot with a beach ad of its own, showing people ducking for cover in the sand as rocket sirens blare. Mr. Netanyahu’s main rivals argue that decades in office have rusted his Mr. Security image, with Israel now exposed to numerous threats.

On Friday, a ramming attack by a Palestinian injured three in the West Bank, and a stabbing attack Thursday injured an Israeli police officer. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, delivered a speech Friday bragging about Hezbollah’s “victory” over Israel in the 2006 Lebanon war, a message aimed at threatening Israel again this year. Hezbollah said its precision rockets, many supplied by Iran, can now reach all of Israel.

In April, Likud and the Blue and White Party each captured 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, but Mr. Netanyahu was quickly hailed as the winner with a number of smaller parties ready to work with him in a coalition government.

But those expectations exploded when Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned as defense minister in November to protest Mr. Netanyahu’s unwillingness to launch a major operation against Palestinian militants in Gaza, refused to sign a coalition agreement. Mr. Lieberman wanted to keep the ultra-Orthodox parties out of the next government, and when it was clear Mr. Netanyahu couldn’t form a majority, new elections were scheduled.

A poll released Thursday night by Israel’s Channel 13 appears to be setting up a rerun of what Israelis are calling the “do-over election,” with both Likud and Blue and White projected to win 31 seats and the balance of power held by an assorted collection of smaller parties. But recent days have shown how unexpected events and controversies can upset the most carefully laid political strategies.

Mr. Netanyahu’s image as a world statesman were tested when he got caught up in a controversy over whether to allow two U.S. Democratic congresswomen, Rep. Ilhan Omar or Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, into the country given their past support for the pro-Palestinian campaign to boycott Israel’s companies and economy.

After a public nudge from Mr. Trump on Twitter, Mr. Netanyahu’s government blocked the two from entering Israel. Mr. Trump warned that Israel would look “weak” if it granted entry to the lawmakers, both strong critics of Israeli policies, but the decision sparked fierce criticism from Democrats on Capitol Hill and even from pro-Israeli American Jewish groups.

One asset Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign thinks will carry over from the April vote is his outsized image on the world stage, the equal of Mr. Trump and other world statesmen.

His campaign posters proclaim that Mr. Netanyahu is in “another league” compared with his rivals. The ads show him meeting with Mr. Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Mr. Modi recently said he hopes Israel and India become closer allies and calls Mr. Netanyahu “my friend Bibi.”

In the lead-up to the elections, Mr. Netanyahu is planning a trip to Ukraine and will likely host at least one other high-profile foreign visit.

Closer to home, Mr. Netanyahu has to wrestle with concerns about Iran and developments in Syria and Iraq. Recent explosions at the sites of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have been blamed on Israel.

The Blue and White Party, which includes a collection of former generals and the populist centrist politician Yair Lapid, faces challenges of its own. It’s not clear, analysts say, what message the opposition can bring that will attract significant numbers of new voters in September. Mr. Lapid, attacking Mr. Netanyahu on his supposed strong suit, said last week that the prime minister behaved with “weakness” by bowing to Mr. Trump’s tweet and barring Ms. Oman and Ms. Tlaib.

One big problem for the center-left opposition in Israeli politics is that it is hard for partners on the left to form a government, meaning the only way they can outmaneuver Mr. Netanyahu is to ally with him in a coalition government or dangle enough incentives in front of Mr. Netanyahu’s natural right-wing partners to get them to choose a new partner after September.

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