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Hardliner Netanyahu Poised to Become Israel's New Prime Minister

Public opinion polls before Israel's national elections next Tuesday have consistently shown former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the lead. Netanyahu represents the right-wing Likud Party, which has been gaining support as many Israelis express frustration over the lack of progress toward a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Benjamin Netanyahu, at the age of 46, became Israel's youngest prime minister in 1996, and the first to be born after the creation of the state of Israel. His hawkish views resonated with many Israelis who were eager for a tough-talking leader, following a string of suicide bombings and other violence by Arabs against Jews. He was voted out of office in 1999.

Who's Running?
  • Likud [nationalist] Kadima [centrist] Yisrael Beitenu [ultra-nationalist] Labor [center-left] Shas [religious orthodox] Israeli Arabs Ultra-orthodox Jews Peace activists Senior citizens Environmentalists
Now, Netanyahu, a one-time furniture salesman known to Israelis by his nickname of Bibi, is riding on a new wave of support as many Israelis express frustration over the outgoing government's lack of progress in peace talks with the Palestinians, the continuing threat of Iran's nuclear ambitions, and with the outcome of Israel's war in the Gaza Strip.

After a 22-day assault on militants in Gaza, Hamas remains in charge and rockets from Gaza have continued to hit communities in southern Israel.

Netanyahu visited the southern city of Ashkelon immediately after a rocket launched from Gaza hit there on February 3 - one week before election day. He said he would take a tougher stand against Hamas than the ruling centrist Kadima party has done.

"The army did a great job, but the Kadima government stopped short of achieving the goal. There is only one thing that will remove the missile threat from Ashkelon and the other cities and towns of Israel, and that is to bring down the Hamas government and we will bring down the Hamas government," he said.

It is the tough talk that is appealing to Israelis whose main concern in these elections is security.

His views on the status of Jerusalem - one of the key sticking points in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations - have been no less clear and uncompromising.

"For 3,000 years this place has been the capital of the Jewish people. For 2,000 years we have been struggling and praying to get back here and re-establish our sovereignty. We did not unite Jerusalem to leave it. We did not unite it to re-divide it. And the government of Likud will keep Jerusalem united under Israeli sovereignty," Netanyahu said.

Elections QuickFacts
  • Israelis vote Tuesday for new parliament, or Knesset
  • 34 party lists vying for 120 seats
  • Each list ranks candidates according to party preference
  • Some lists cover several parties
  • 2% national vote needed for Knesset entry
  • Low threshold means many parties involved
  • Usually need coalition to win 61-seat majority, form government
  • After vote count, president chooses PM-designate
  • Has 42 days to negotiate coalition, name Cabinet
  • If unable, president may chose other lawmaker, has 28 days
  • If wins majority support, government sworn in
On the other contentious issue of Jewish settlements in disputed lands, Netanyahu has said Israel would not build new outposts, but said existing ones should be allowed to expand. He has pledged not to expel any settlers.

Netanyahu's record of delivering on his right-wing promises has not been perfect. He lost his 1999 re-election bid after angering his hardline supporters by agreeing to withdraw in stages from 13 percent of Israeli-occupied lands. His supporters at the time accused him of giving in for the sake of political ambition, although his administration never fulfilled the agreement.

If Netanyahu is elected, his ability to take pragmatic steps while retaining his right-wing following will be tested once again when it comes time to restart negotiations with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu is promising to pursue the peace process and at thesame time be tougher than Kadima has been in negotiations with the Palestinians. This strategy is likely to win the vote of those in Israel who are seeking change.