Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu kicked off his campaign for elections set for September with a speech that highlighted his government’s economic achievements and claimed credit for improving security.
“We returned the economy of Israel to robust growth, more robust than Europe and the United States,” Netanyahu told members of his Likud party in Tel Aviv late today. “At a time when unemployment has reached drastic dimensions in many countries, we created a quarter-million new jobs.”
Likud introduced legislation last week to dissolve the Knesset, Israel’s 120-seat parliament, and schedule elections for Sept. 4. Netanyahu, 62, enjoys a commanding lead over his rivals, according to polls published over the last few days.
The Israeli economy grew 4.8 percent in 2011 and is expected to expand by 3.1 percent this year, in comparison with growth last year in Europe of 1.4 percent and the U.S. of 1.7 percent.
Netanyahu will campaign “on the fact that we have the lowest unemployment in three decades and one of the highest growth rates in the Western world,” said Avraham Diskin, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Israeli unemployment was 6.9 percent in March, compared with U.S. joblessness of 8.2 percent.
Challengers from Labor, Kadima and other parties will cite income inequality and the relatively high cost of housing, Diskin said, adding these will be especially prominent issues if this summer sees a repeat of last year’s social justice protests in Tel Aviv and other cities.
While by law Netanyahu could have waited another year until having to call elections, the need for a shake-up now became apparent with disagreements in his coalition over the budget and draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews, said Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. who counsels Netanyahu on politics and foreign policy.
“From Netanyahu’s point of view, riding high in the public opinion polls and not really having a serious opposition to his probable re-election, this is as good a time as any,” said Shoval.
“This will send a message to Israel’s friends, and its enemies, that they will have to deal with the same prime minister for the next four years, and they should be prepared for that,” Shoval said.
“While economic issues will be important, especially if we see a repeat of last summer’s protests against social inequality, peace and security issues will, as always, be paramount in the minds of Israeli voters,” Diskin said.
Netanyahu said his government has been “strong and judicious” in its handling of diplomatic and security challenges, including success in “enlisting the international community against Iran’s nuclear program.”
Netanyahu has more than three times the support of his closest competitor, drawing 48 percent in a poll published in the Haaretz newspaper May 3. He was trailed by Labor Party chief Shelly Yacimovich with 15 percent and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, chairman of the Yisrael Beytenu party, with 9 percent. Kadima Party leader Shaul Mofaz had 6 percent.
The Haaretz poll, conducted on May 1 by the Tel Aviv-based Dialog organization, asked 513 likely voters whom they would choose for prime minister. The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.
While the poll measured the popularity of the top candidates, Israel’s electoral system requires voters to select a party rather than a politician. As no party has achieved a parliamentary majority in recent history by itself, elections lead to negotiations in which the winner must work with smaller parties to build a coalition that has at least 61 seats.
Netanyahu won in 2009 by bringing five other parties into his coalition even though Likud had one less seat in the Knesset than Kadima. First elected premier in 1996, Netanyahu lost the next election in 1999 to Labor’s Ehud Barak -- now defense minister and head of the Atzmaut party -- before returning to office in 2009.
“With God’s help we will establish a government as wide as possible, and will continue to lead Israel with strength,” Netanyahu said.