JERUSALEM – The coming Israeli election amounts to a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu — hard-headed defender of Israel to some, the man who buried dreams of peace to others.
Early polls suggest Netanyahu, an enigmatic leader who has already served three terms as prime minister, is likely to be returned for a fourth on March 17. But new developments, especially the emergence of an array of unpredictable centrist parties, make things difficult to predict.
Under Netanyahu, Israel is a nation in bunker mode: The mindset is one of furrowed brows, distrust of outsiders, and vigilance against anti-Semitism. Despite some ideological feints, he and his Likud Party essentially represent continued occupation and settlement of the West Bank — a territory captured in the 1967 war that is the heartland of the would-be Palestinian state.
That policy is not only opposed by the Palestinians and the world community — it also has many Israelis in deep despair over what they see as the ruination of Zionism through the de facto creation of a non-Jewish, binational country where half the people are Arabs.
Netanyahu himself has spoken of this concern, yet he seems in no hurry to change course. As things grind on, Israel's educated classes, business elites and even security establishment are starting to seem apoplectic about the road Israel is on.
Peace efforts are stuck, Israel is increasingly isolated, and the economy is stagnant. There is a sense of ennui, and the phrase "anyone but Bibi" — Netanyahu's widely used nickname — has gained currency of late.
But the more dovish opposition is fractured among three or four midsize parties, and the lack of a unifying figure to face off against him is creating a sense of inevitability about Netanyahu.
Under Israel's political system one thing decides elections: which elected lawmaker is backed by a majority of 61 of the 120 seats.
When the Likud plus its natural allies on Israel's political right — smaller nationalist and religious parties — have a majority, the Likud leader governs. Usually that leader tries to then attract centrists into a coalition, knowing that a nationalist-religious government would alienate half the country and much of the world.
So it was in 2013: Netanyahu's bloc won 61 seats, and he used that leverage to attract the centrist parties of longtime politician Tzipi Livni and TV personality Yair Lapid to join him. This created a more widely appealing aesthetic for his team — as well as gridlock and dysfunction.
This week the acrimony spilled over, the government ran aground, and Livni and Lapid were fired as justice and finance ministers. Part of the issue was Netanyahu's insistence on passing a law that would officially define Israel as a Jewish state, over the objections of the minority Arabs and their allies on the left.
Now the blocs are aligning in classic fashion again, with Netanyahu speaking of the need for a stable government and hosting a stream of religious politicians trying to assure himself of their renewed support.
At a news conference after he was fired, Lapid predicted that Netanyahu will not remain prime minister after the vote. Does he know something the polls do not? Here are some factors that could be crucial.
THE NEW KID IN TOWN
Netanyahu's former communications minister Moshe Kahlon made his name by succeeding in lowering Israel's mobile phone charges. Now he is forming a new party and promising to attack the high cost of living in general. Kahlon comes from the Likud — but he probably knows that Israel is expensive largely because of high security costs, the heavily subsidized West Bank settlement project, and the economically dependent fast growing ultra-Orthodox sector. These are all touchstone issues for the left, and Kahlon has taken to hinting that the Holy Land must indeed be partitioned among Israelis and Palestinians. Polling at around 10 percent, he will probably take votes from both camps. In theory, he could end up denying the right-wing bloc a majority and joining with the left. No one knows if he really would — perhaps not even the smiling, down-to-earth Kahlon himself.
THE LIEBERMAN FACTOR
Soviet-born Avigdor Lieberman is a former Netanyahu aide who leads a party that appeals mostly to Israel's generally hawkish Russian speakers and is also polling around 10 percent. He has always been in the right-wing bloc — yet Lieberman too now speaks of the need to partition the land. He goes further still, suggesting Israel should give up not only parts of the West Bank but also bits of its internationally recognized territory that are heavily populated with Israeli Arab citizens, an idea denounced by critics as racist. Some see a plot to steal votes from the left. So profound is the cynicism that this wily ex-nightclub bouncer projects that few can ideologically pin him down. Proceed with caution: Lieberman, described by Palestinians as the world's only foreign minister who lives abroad, is a settler in the occupied West Bank.
WILL THE RELIGIOUS HOLD A GRUDGE?
Netanyahu didn't just keep the ultra-Orthodox parties out of his coalition in 2013. To appease the staunchly secular Lapid, the government passed laws curtailing the sweeping draft exemptions of seminary students and considered other measures that shocked their insular, impoverished electorate — like reducing subsidies to their sectarian schools and imposing science studies in hopes of making graduates more employable. There was a sense that this betrayal might have broken up the right-religious bloc, that in the next election the religious might back the left. That would basically doom Netanyahu, but he is hoping they'll forgive and forget. He may not hope in vain: the signs are that they mostly blame Lapid.
IT'S THE SECURITY, STUPID
In a country whose right to exist is contested, whose borders are unclear and whose people have never known a day of real peace, it matters what the security people say after they retire and can speak their mind. So it is politically relevant that in a recent documentary film, all six of the former heads of the Shin Bet security service living at the time criticized the West Bank occupation. The most recently retired Shin Bet chief, Yuval Diskin, has been scathing in his attacks on Netanyahu. Key retired chiefs of the Mossad spy agency seem in much the same vein. One of them, Shabtai Shavit, wrote an impassioned essay in recent days about his fear for the future of Israel. Most top military figures are cut from similar cloth. Expect the opposition to try to recruit some of these figures.
WILL ISRAELI ARABS BRING OUT THE VOTE?
Israeli Arabs, Palestinians who found themselves in what became Israel after the 1948-1949 war, account for about a fifth of the population of 8 million. Yet the parties that represent them — considered part of the left bloc — hold less than a tenth of the seats due to low turnout. Many Israeli Arabs are ambivalent about Israel and some are just despondent after decades of living in underfunded communities with limited opportunities. The leaders of parliament's three Arab parties are talking about uniting and launching a get-out-the-vote campaign at what is looking like a make-or-break moment in their fellow Palestinians' drive for a state. Israel's new President Reuven Rivlin, another Likud veteran who appears to have turned on Netanyahu, has reached out to this population as well. A big turnout could change the game.
Dan Perry leads AP's text coverage in the Middle East and is a former Europe and Africa Editor. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/perry_dan