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Netanyahu Falls Behind in Israeli Election Polls

Socioeconomic issues have dominated the campaign due to soaring house prices and rising costs of living.

by Harriet Salem
Mar 14 2015, 6:00pm

AP Photo/Gali Tibbon, Pool

Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his hawkish right-wing Likud party should be on safe ground in Ashdod. Just 16 miles from the Gaza border it is one of a string of staunchly right-wing "development towns" that routinely takes the brunt of Hamas' rocket fire into Israel, and where Netanyahu's tough stance on security concerns typically plays out well at the ballot box.

Yet earlier this week, with just days to go until the March 17 election, the prime minister cancelled at the last minute a campaign trip  to the city of more than 200,000 people amid fears of an embarrassingly low turnout.

"It's astonishing," said an Ashdod local official, who asked not want to be named, of the decision to cancel the event in the city where Likud took 36 percent of the vote in the last election. "People in Ashdod, this area, we're the proud heart of the right-wing. If Bibi's worried he can't rally people here he's in serious trouble on Tuesday [election day]."

Related: Ultra-Orthodox Women Enter Israel's Election Race to Anger and Protest

Polling data released on Friday shows the prime minister and his party two to four seats behind the "Zionist Union" - a coalition of Hatnuah and Labor party.  A Jerusalem Post poll found that 72 percent of Israelis want a change in government.  A narrower majority said they did not want Netanyahu to head the next government: 48 percent were against the prime minister continuing in his job, while 42 percent wanted him to stay.  

In Israel's election system, where votes are counted for the whole country rather than by region, the close poll results means that victory in the election is still up for grabs, and every ballot cast on Tuesday will count. 

In one of the Ashdod's American-style shopping mall outlets, 26-year-old Daria Genzel says she, like 16 percent of Israeli voters, is still not decided on who to vote for but, "it won't be Bibi again."

"I'm at a point in life where things like buying an apartment are important. Israel needs somebody who can change the economic situation," she told VICE News. "The security situation here is not going to change, so jobs, house prices, salaries these are the important things for politicians and voters to think about now."

Socioeconomic issues have dominated the recent election more than ever before due to soaring house prices and rising costs of living which have left more than 20 percent of Israelis below the poverty line. Yet Likud officials have not even released an economic program as part of their election campaign, and have instead focused on perceived security issues such as what they say is the danger of Iran's nuclear program.  

"Bibi hasn't done anything for us in his last two terms," Boris Genzel, Daria's brother, told VICE News. "It's all very well to talk about Iran, but he can't answer a question about how to solve Israel's economic problems," he added.

On the highway into Sderot, a town less than one mile from the Gaza border, a handful of cars honk in support as they pass by Labor party members hanging up posters. "Look, you see how spirit is changing. Eighteen months ago we would never have such a reaction," says Yossi Yana, a candidate for Labor party, who received a mere 3 percent of the vote in Sderot in the last election.

"People are fed up with the current regime. They might not all vote for us here but they want change you can feel it everywhere. People want a government that cares about pensioners and about how they will feed their children and put them through school," he told VICE News.

Related: Israel's Defense Minister Accuses English-Speakers of Plotting Against the Government

Despite conducting his election campaign on a security platform the prime minister has also been faced down on that front.

Earlier this month Meir Dagan, a former head of the Mossad, called Netanyahu's speech to congress on Iran "bullshit" and said that the prime minister's policies on the Palestinian issue were "pushing the country toward apartheid."

"Everyone took it for granted that Netanyahu is Mr. Security, but everything he has done in this respect is wrong," said Asher Levi, a retired army general and member of "Commanders for Israel" a group of nearly 200 former security officials who have lampooned the prime minister's handling of security issues. "We have a strong army. But instead of thinking how to win the next war, a clever and efficient prime minister should think how to avoid the next war. Netanyahu is not doing that." 

In Sderot, local Likud election campaign manager Ofir Asulin admitted the situation "is not good." As he hung up campaign posters in the midday heat, Asulin blamed the Israeli media and former security officials for spearheading a "personal smear campaign" against the prime minister.  He criticized the center and leftist parties of campaigning "on social issues while having unclear political agendas".

The increasingly desperate Netanyahu has also pushed that line. On Saturday the prime minister took to Facebook to reiterate a claim that leftists and international media were orchestrating a campaign financed by foreign money to unseat him, finishing the rambling post by warning voters they must respond to the plot by voting "only Likud."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem

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