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Israeli election race increasingly desperate as voters go to polls

The National – 1 March 2020

Few in Israel expect the country’s third general election in a year to end with a markedly different outcome from the previous two. Barring a last-minute upset, most of those turning out on Monday assume the political stalemate will continue. There are already rumblings from politicians of an imminent fourth round of voting.

Paradoxically, much of the Israeli electorate – at least the Jewish majority – agrees on political fundamentals. They believe it is time to permanently seize much of the territory that was one day meant to form the basis of a Palestinian state.

They disagree less on what needs to be done than on who should do it. As before, the election is chiefly a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu’s fitness for office after more than a decade in power.

But the context of this election is different in two ways.

The first is that Mr Netanyahu is no longer fighting the campaign with mere allegations of corruption hanging over him. In two weeks, he is due to stand trial as a criminal defendant. No sitting Israeli prime minister has ever been in the dock before.

With so much at stake, Mr Netanyahu and his Likud party are playing even dirtier than usual in pursuit of every last vote for their bloc, which represents the religious and settler right.

Mr Netanyahu needs to fire up supporters who are tired of repeated elections so that they turn out in larger numbers than ever. If he can secure a parliamentary majority, he has indicated that he will use it to try to pass a French-style law conferring on him immunity while he heads the government.

The Haaretz newspaper reported on Saturday that Mr Netanyahu is even trying to dig up dirt to discredit his own attorney general – the man who approved his prosecution and trial.

But most of the character assassination has focused on Mr Netanyahu’s chief political rival, Benny Gantz, a former army general who heads the right-wing, largely secular Blue and White party. Mr Gantz finally lost his cool last week, angrily denouncing Mr Netanyahu for presiding over a campaign of “lies and mud”.

Mr Netanyahu’s goal has been to shift attention away from his impending trial to questions about Mr Gantz’s conduct and competence.

The state prosecutor, one of Mr Netanyahu’s recent appointees, has fast-tracked a criminal investigation into a bankrupt cyber-security company Mr Gantz once headed.

The former army general is not believed to have been personally involved in any wrongdoing. But the case has allowed Likud officials to suggest that there are now criminal “suspicions” against both party leaders, levelling the playing-field.

Mr Netanyahu has also tried to revive unsubstantiated claims that a hacked phone belonging to Mr Gantz contains compromising personal videos. That, in Mr Netanyahu’s telling, leaves his rival susceptible to extortion from Iran.

The “weak on Israel’s security” line against Mr Gantz has not been an easy sell, given his hawkish military credentials. But it received an unexpected fillip on Thursday with the leak of a secret recording of Mr Gantz’s adviser appearing to say his boss lacked “the courage to attack Iran” and that such reticence might “endanger Israel”.

The second difference with this election is that it comes after the US administration unveiled its “peace plan” last month. That has provided the mood music to the campaign.

Donald Trump’s green light for Israel to annex swaths of the West Bank – sounding the death knell for a viable Palestinian state – has been warmly welcomed by Mr Netanyahu. Forced to play catch-up, Mr Gantz, too, has promised to annex much of the West Bank.

But, as Mr Trump and Mr Netanyahu doubtless intended, that has caused various political headaches for Blue and White’s leader.

By backing annexation, Mr Gantz has now alienated his more moderate supporters. They appear to have been deserting him for a new centrist faction formed around the veteran Labour party.

Although that may give Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party a small numerical edge over Blue and White in the tally of parliamentary seats, it is less likely to make a difference to the overall arithmetic. Most voters lost to Mr Gantz will remain inside the anti-Netanyahu bloc he heads.

But Mr Gantz has also found himself in a contest for right-wing votes that plays to the strengths of Mr Netanyahu, who serves effectively as the settlers’ patron.

Mr Netanyahu spent last week promising goodies to the nationalist camp, apparently unconcerned about any diplomatic repercussions. They included approval of three, long-frozen settlement projects. Previous US administrations have treated them as a red line because they would seal off East Jerusalem – the presumed capital of any future Palestinian state – from the West Bank.

More than 5,000 homes would be built in two settlements close to Bethlehem. But even more serious is the revival of the so-called E1 project, first proposed a quarter of a century ago.

Much of the infrastructure for E1, a large area west of Jerusalem, has already been laid down, including roads, street-lighting, electricity pylons, traffic roundabouts and a police station.

But construction of 3,500 homes there has been stalled for many years. The international community has objected strenuously to building a settlement that would not only block future expansion for Palestinians in East Jerusalem but also cut the West Bank itself in two, creating separate northern and southern sections.

On Friday, Europe urged Israel to “refrain from any unilateral action that undermines the viability of the two-state solution” – half-hearted push-back that Israel will probably interpret as a green light.

All of this has created another headache for Mr Gantz. His efforts to compete with Mr Netanyahu on boosting the settlements have antagonised the Joint List, a coalition of parties representing Israel’s large Palestinian-Arab minority – a fifth of the country’s citizens.

The difficulty for Mr Gantz is that, if he is to stand a chance of forming a minority government, he will need external support from the Joint List.

Bated by Mr Netanyahu about the “dangers” of his dependence on “Arab parties”, Mr Gantz has dismissed the Joint List as partners – thereby shooting himself in the foot. Who will prop up his bloc against Mr Netanyahu’s if not the Joint List?

The immediate question is whether all this will succeed in swinging enough votes Mr Netanyahu’s way for him secure his grip on power a while longer.

The longer-term concern, however, is what damage Mr Netanyahu will manage to inflict upon Israel’s political and legal systems – as well as on already frayed relations between the country’s Jewish majority and its Palestinian minority – on his way out.

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