JERUSALEM — Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed in a rare interview on Sunday to his right-wing base to cast ballots for his list, rather than hawkish alternatives, to prevent his being unseated by a potential center-left coalition.
His appeal reflects developments in recent weeks that have left Netanyahu more vulnerable ahead of Jan. 22 elections: the emergence of a charismatic new, pro-settler leader; blistering criticism of his leadership by a respected former security chief; and over the weekend, feelers by three center-left parties to unite ahead of the elections to form a bloc that would vie to form the next government.
Still, he does not seem to be in real danger of losing the premiership in the upcoming balloting, so it's not clear whether his comments reflected genuine nervousness or whether he was using the center-left unity talk to prod likeminded Israelis to rally around his hardline flag.
In interviews to Israel Radio and Army Radio, Netanyahu went on the attack against exploratory contacts among three of his adversaries to form a bloc that would pose a stiffer challenge to his leadership.
The bloc would consist of the Labor party, which opposes Netanyahu's economic policies; former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's Hatnua party, which thinks Netanyahu is jeopardizing efforts to make peace with the Palestinians, and former journalist Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party thinks the prime minister has shortchanged the middle class.
The center-left parties, Netanyahu told both stations, "have one objective: To topple the government I lead."
The prime minister appeared to be falling back on his strong standing among hawkish Israelis to try to boost support for his troubled list. Polls show sizable numbers of right-wing voters withdrawing their support for Netanyahu's Likud Beiteinu list and redirecting it to the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, led by high-tech millionaire Naftali Bennett. At the same time, the surveys show respondents overwhelmingly choosing Netanyahu as the best option for prime minister.
"Whoever wants me as a strong prime minister can't have a strong prime minister while weakening me," Netanyahu told Israel Radio in an interview conducted Saturday night and broadcast Sunday. "I think there is only one way to guarantee that the right continues to govern Israel, and that's to vote for me."
Still, even though polls show backing for Likud Beiteinu dropping, they do not show Netanyahu's leadership to be at risk: The task of forming the next government will go to the party that appears best able to put together a coalition, and surveys show Netanyahu and his traditional pro-settlement and religious allies winning a majority of parliament's 120 seats, bolstered, perhaps, by one or more of the center-left parties now talking about joining ranks against him.
The numbers do not seem to favor the formation of a government led by centrists or leftists. Instead, the big question appears to how far to the right the next government will be. Labor has ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led government. Livni has not, and Lapid told Army Radio on Sunday that if polls are borne out, he would like to join a broad-based government to make it more moderate and put peacemaking with the Palestinians on the agenda.
In related news, Netanyahu dismissed the assault by former Shin Bet internal security chief Yuval Diskin against his leadership over the weekend. Diskin portrayed the Israeli leader as weak, indecisive and putting personal interests above the state's. He said he was going public with his concerns before elections in an effort to persuade voters not to cast ballots for Netanyahu.
Netanyahu told Israel Radio that Diskin went public so close to the election in an effort to sway the election results.