Speech to Congress lets Netanyahu keep focus on security as Israeli election nears

Shortly after the Israeli state comptroller published a report earlier this week chronicling a steep rise in housing prices on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s watch, the Israeli leader posted a response on Twitter.

“When we talk about housing prices, about the cost of living, I don’t for a minute forget life itself,” he wrote. “The greatest challenge to our life now is Iran arming itself with nuclear weapons.”

The attempt to steer the conversation away from contentious domestic issues to what Netanyahu has called a looming existential threat was typical of how the prime minister has conducted his current election campaign.

Nearing the home stretch of a tight election, and with a contentious speech on Iran before the U.S. Congress scheduled for Tuesday, Netanyahu is dominating the campaign agenda, focusing it squarely on his favorite subject – security – and wooing right-leaning voters by challenging President Barack Obama.

The speech, in which Netanyahu is expected to charge that an emerging diplomatic accord on Iran’s nuclear program will enable it to produce a bomb eventually, takes place precisely two weeks before the Israeli election.

While the address, arranged with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is part of an effort to counter Obama’s pursuit of a nuclear agreement with Iran, Israeli commentators said it also had a clear domestic purpose: to make foreign affairs and security, not troublesome bread-and-butter issues, the focus of the remaining days of the election race.

Analysts called the speech an effort to attract more right-leaning voters to Netanyahu’s Likud Party, which polls find is running neck and neck with the center-left Zionist Union alliance led by Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni.

“This is electioneering par excellence,” said Reuven Hazan, chairman of the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “He’s playing exactly to the audience he wants to get votes from. He’s demonstrating that Israel’s security is at the top of his agenda, and he’s playing to an audience where Obama is not perceived positively.”

While relations with the United States traditionally have been a core issue of concern for many Israeli voters, Netanyahu appears to have calculated that a rift with the Obama administration would be outweighed by his appeal on what he portrays as a matter of national survival.

“I respect the White House and the president of the United States,” he told a Likud gathering Wednesday. “But on such a critical topic, that could determine whether we exist or not, it is my duty to do everything to prevent this great danger to the state of Israel.”

As the campaign has heated up, Netanyahu has kept up a steady drumbeat of denunciations of the deal being discussed with Iran. In his latest broadside, he accused the United States and other powers involved in the talks of “having given up on that commitment” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

While Netanyahu’s planned speech was criticized this week by Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, as “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between Israel and the United States, the prime minister’s effort to cast himself as a tough defender of Israel’s security seems to resonate with many Israelis.

So far, Herzog has consistently lagged behind Netanyahu in surveys asking voters who’s more qualified to be prime minister. “They don’t see Herzog as a powerful leader who is going to stand up to the world,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, an expert on political communication at the Interdisciplinary Center, a private college in Herzliya. “They figure that Netanyahu is at least doing the job, and if someone else takes over, who knows if he can do it.”

A recent survey of Israeli campaign news coverage found that Netanyahu has been getting significantly more attention than his main opponent. “Being an incumbent is an important asset in a democracy, and people no longer believe in a new messiah,” said Gideon Rahat, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a research center.

According to the most recent polls, with the two main parties at about equal strength, Netanyahu would have a better chance of forming a governing coalition than Herzog would. Allied with other rightist and religious parties, Netanyahu would command an easier parliamentary majority than Herzog could cobble together with parties of the left and center, the polls indicate.

But with some 20 percent of voters undecided, the final tally of seats might confound the predictions.

At a news conference Thursday, Herzog tried to undermine Netanyahu’s claim to be the guardian of Israel’s security.

Urging the prime minister to cancel his trip to Washington, Herzog warned: “You are going to cause strategic damage to Israel’s standing and to the intimate relationship with the United States, and it will harm us, the citizens of the country.”