JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to energize supporters on the eve of the elections on Tuesday, April 9, with warnings and controversial promises, while his centrist challenger urged voters to tell the premier the country has had enough.
The general election – in which Netanyahu is seeking to extend his 13 years in office despite corruption allegations against him – is expected to be close, as ex-military chief Benny Gantz poses a serious challenge.
The two men spent the campaign’s final hours exhorting voters with two different strategies: Netanyahu repeatedly warned that his Likud was at risk of losing, while Gantz made the case that Israel was on the verge of historic change.
The truth was more complicated, with opinion polls giving Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White a similar number of seats in the 120-seat parliament.
Under those polls, both would fall far short of an outright majority and would need to pull together a coalition.
If polling trends hold, Netanyahu would be best placed to build an alliance thanks to smaller right-wing parties close to him.
But there have been repeated warnings about opinion polls’ historical unreliability and the fact that many voters say they remain undecided.
Netanyahu’s claims that Likud may lose were widely seen as a way to encourage his base to turn out.
‘Who can do this?’
Netanyahu has made last-minute appeals to the right, issuing a deeply controversial pledge to annex settlements in the occupied West Bank.
If done on a large-scale, applying Israeli sovereignty there could extinguish remaining hopes for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
In an interview on Sunday, April 7, Netanyahu said US President Donald Trump, who is expected to release his long-awaited deal for Israeli-Palestinian peace sometime after the election, was aware of his plans.
Netanyahu said he planned to apply sovereignty gradually, and that he did not differentiate between Israel’s large West Bank settlement blocs and the isolated ones located deep in the territory on land the Palestinians see as part of a future state.
“Who else can do this? Who can do this? Come on. Honestly,” Netanyahu said, making the case as he has throughout the campaign that he is Israel’s essential statesman.
“Who can stand in front of the world? Who can stand in front of the American Congress? Who can move public opinion in that direction?”
Gantz has called Netanyahu’s pledge an “irresponsible” bid for right-wing votes.
He says he favors a “globally backed peace agreement” that sees Israel hold on to the large settlement blocs in the West Bank and maintain security control over the territory.
Gantz has also highlighted his security credentials while saying he will heal divisions he accuses Netanyahu of exacerbating.
“There’s a need for change and an opportunity for change,” Gantz told Israel’s army radio on Monday, April 8.
“Israel needs to choose a direction of unification, connection and hope – or of extremity.”
The two were also engaging in typical pre-election campaigning, including Gantz riding a motorcycle to his rally on Sunday and Netanyahu visiting Jerusalem’s main market on Monday.
“The only way to close the gap and to ensure that Likud will form the next government for sure is to have a big Likud,” Netanyahu told supporters at the market.
Gantz said Monday at his party headquarters in Tel Aviv that supporters had to make sure “everyone goes to the polling stations because we are going to serve all voters from the right and from the left, all of the Israeli citizens.”
Netanyahu will be on track to surpass founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister should he win on Tuesday.
But even if he triumphs, he faces the prospect of becoming the first sitting prime minister to be indicted.
The attorney general has announced he intends to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust pending an upcoming hearing.
The premier’s opponents have seized on the allegations to argue that the 69-year-old Netanyahu has lost his way and must go.
But the premier has been defiant, calling the investigations a “witch hunt” and denouncing journalists reporting on them – similar to the tactics used by his ally Trump.
While the threat of indictment hangs over Netanyahu, he has also built a reputation as guarantor of Israel’s security and economic growth.
He has repeatedly claimed Trump’s recognition of the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights as two of his major accomplishments.
Gantz has sought to overcome that in part by allying with two other former military chiefs of staff and ex-finance minister Yair Lapid. – Rappler.com
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