The Hebrew word for strong, “hazak”, peppers the television adverts of his right-wing Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu party like a compulsive mantra and is smeared across the blue-and-white campaign posters that dominate billboards around the country.
Robust leadership is vital, Netanyahu says, to deal with his generation’s biggest challenge - not the decades-old conflict with the Palestinians, but fears that Iran is bent on building an atomic bomb that could one day target the Jewish state.
“My priority, if I’m elected for a next term as prime minister, will be first to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu told a delegation of U.S. senators who visited him in Jerusalem on January 11.
Iran denies that its nuclear program is aimed at making bombs and says Israel, widely assumed to have the Middle East’s only atomic arsenal, is the region’s greatest menace.
Recent opinion polls suggest that Netanyahu will indeed be re-elected at the head of a coalition government. This means the Iranian issue, which has largely lain dormant since before the U.S. presidential election in November, will return to the fore.
In the diplomatic battle over Iran, Netanyahu, 63, portrays himself as an uncompromising tough guy, a former commando turned conservative hardliner, who will go it alone against Tehran if necessary to thwart what he sees as an existential threat.
But just how strong is he? Not very if you are to believe the previous head of Israel's Shin Bet intelligence agency, who has launched an astonishing pre-election attack on his former boss, accusing him of being weak and wavering.
“He has no strong core, no tough kernel about which you can say, ‘Know what? In an extreme situation, in a crisis situation, I can follow him. I can trust him,’” Yuval Diskin, who retired as Shin Bet chief in 2011, told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily in a front-page interview published on January 4.
Although opinion polls show most Israelis trust Netanyahu’s handling of security issues, Diskin is not the only senior official to express doubts about his character. That in turn reflects the fact that despite serving as Israeli prime minister longer than anyone bar founding father David Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu remains something of a conundrum.
While his rhetoric can make him sound brash and bullying, he has often proved circumspect and contradictory. Although he has promised reform, he has frequently clung to the status quo, both in domestic and foreign affairs.
The most American of all Israeli premiers, he has arguably presided over the worst relations with a U.S. president, due in part to disagreements over how to handle Iran.