TEL AVIV, Israel – Crowding the rooftop hall at Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Benjamin Netanyahu’s aging campaign loyalists waited impatiently for his kickoff re-election rally.
When the three-term prime minister emerged half an hour late from a rickety elevator, they surged forward, reaching across a wedge of bodyguards to kiss, hug and pat the silver- haired leader popularly known as Bibi. Netanyahu, 65, waded through a septuagenarian scrum, gave a five-minute speech and departed.
Having served longer than anyone since Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu is struggling to reach beyond the party faithful to younger voters drawn to fresher faces, analysts say. With Likud in a neck-and-neck race with opponents in the polls, the man Time magazine hailed two years ago as King Bibi is putting his survival skills to the test in the March 17 contest.
“There’s clearly a level of Bibi fatigue,” Hebrew University political scientist Gadi Wolfsfeld said. “Times have changed, the economy has changed, but he’s using the same lines we heard from him 20 years ago.”
While housing and food prices are weighing on Israelis in this election, Netanyahu continues to emphasize the security issues that have been the foundation of past campaigns. The dangers posed by Iran and Islamist radicals are a more frequent theme than reviving an economy growing at its slowest pace since 2009.
With peacemaking at an impasse, Netanyahu is losing ground to Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, 42, a former aide and technology entrepreneur whose Jewish Home party opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state. Polls show it winning as many as 17 of parliament’s 120 seats, up from 12.
“Bibi definitely has a problem because young right-wing voters who would have voted Likud in the past are looking at the new guys,” pollster Rafi Smith says. “Bennett knows how to talk to them and he’s pulling away a lot of support.”
Ehud Perry, a 33-year-old executive and longtime Netanyahu supporter, said he and his friends are looking seriously at rivals. While sharing the prime minister’s caution about Arab- Israeli peace prospects, he sees a trail of broken promises most evident in the government’s failure to contain housing prices, which have soared 90 percent since 2007 while the average annual wage, now $28,000, has risen 21 percent.
“With young people, he’s in free fall,” said Perry, chief executive of Machshavot Smartjob Ltd., a legal recruiting company in metropolitan Tel Aviv. “He’s talked for years about helping the middle class, and people don’t believe him anymore.”
Israeli voters have dethroned Netanyahu before. Ehud Barak, the most decorated soldier in Israeli history, defeated the incumbent Netanyahu in 1999. After taking a timeout to earn money on the lecture circuit and as a business consultant, Netanyahu returned as Ariel Sharon’s finance minister and later as opposition leader, rebuilding Likud and returning to the prime minister’s office in 2009.
Don’t count Netanyahu out, though. No single party has ever governed Israel without partners, and surveys show Netanyahu is probably best placed to form a new government with other factions who share his skepticism about peacemaking with the Palestinians.
“The preponderance of evidence is that even if another party gets more votes than Likud, Netanyahu’s the only one who can put together enough parties for an effective coalition,” said pollster Camil Fuchs, a Tel Aviv University statistician.