A month before Israelis go to the polls in a snap election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has plenty to be confident about, with his only real challenges coming from within his own rightwing camp.
Polls put the joint list of his Likud party and the Yisrael Beitenu faction far ahead of the opposition, and the question is not whether Netanyahu will lead the next parliament, but how many seats his joint list will ultimately win.
Even the resignation of Yisrael Beitenu chief Avigdor Lieberman from his post as foreign minister, after his indictment on corruption charges, has failed to dent the list’s lead, with surveys projecting it will take 37 of the 120 seats in the Knesset.
In all, the rightwing nationalist bloc of parties led by the Likud-Beitenu list is expected to win 69 seats, far ahead of the opposition.
The only unknown for Netanyahu is how many seats his faction can win.
“Netanyahu had a dream recently, ahead of his second consecutive term: he wanted to be Ariel Sharon,” Yossi Verter of the Haaretz newspaper wrote recently, referring to the former Israeli prime minister.
“He dreamed of winning the same total of 38 Knesset seats that Likud won when it was headed by Sharon in 2003; in so doing, he would establish a government whose operation would not be contingent upon any single coalition partner and he would be unencumbered by blackmail or threats.”
The main obstacle to that dream will be Naftali Bennett, a former Netanyahu protege who is now expected to lead the hardline national religious party Jewish Home to one of their best electoral results ever.
The latest poll published by the Maariv newspaper on Friday showed the party, which now has just three seats in the Knesset, winning at least 12 seats.
If the polls are right, they would become the third strongest party in the Knesset, behind only the Likud-Beitenu list and the opposition Labour party.
The former head of Netanyahu’s office, Bennett’s political ideology and history mirrors that of the prime minister.
He backs the settlement policy favoured by the prime minister and hails from the same elite Sayeret Maktal army unit in which Netanyahu served.
A former high-tech entrepreneur, the 40-year-old also shares Netanyahu’s excellent command of English, thanks to his American-born parents, and is similarly known as a savvy communicator.
Bennett has been careful to appeal to the party’s traditional national-religious base, but has also courted young, secular Israelis.
He has made no secret of his desire to win at least three ministerial posts for his party, among them the housing ministry, which is seen as crucial by the settler movement for advancing its cause.
Observers say Bennett’s increasing strength in the polls is behind the government’s recent push to advance major settlement projects in the West Bank, including in annexed east Jerusalem, in a bid to win back voters swayed by the charismatic leader.
But Netanyahu denied that in comments to Israel’s Channel 2 on Saturday night, saying the new construction was “a question of principle.”
“We live in a Jewish state and Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. The Western Wall is not occupied territory. We build in Jerusalem because it is our right,” he said.
Whatever obstacles Netanyahu may face will not, however, be coming from the opposition bloc, which the Maariv poll found was expected to win only around 51 seats, far short of the rightwing bloc.
The Labour party led by Shelly Yachimovich tops the opposition, and is projected to win around 20 seats. HaTnuah, the new party formed by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, is credited with around nine seats.
Yesh Atid, the new secular centrist party headed by former journalist Yair Lapid, is projected to win around seven seats, while the once-dominant Kadima — which garnered the most seats in the last elections — is expected to see its parliamentary representation reduced from 28 seats to just one.