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Israel Featured Item

Netanyahu fights for survival

  • Paula
On Tuesday next week, Israelis head to the polls in the second election in five months. Although Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party won back in April, the prime minister was unable to form a governing coalition, and dissolved the newly elected Knesset (parliament).
by PAULA SLIER | Sep 12, 2019

Not much has changed since then, but Netanyahu isn’t taking any chances.

The latest opinion polls predict a tight race. Former Israel Defense Forces Chief Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) centrist-left party is starting to pull ahead of Likud, albeit by only one Knesset seat. Should this happen, Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party, who single-handedly prevented Netanyahu from winning the April elections, is likely to recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that Gantz, not Netanyahu, be tasked with forming a new coalition. Rivlin will no doubt concede, especially after publicly criticising some of Netanyahu’s latest moves.

In the right-wing bloc, the newly elected Yemina (Right) party chairperson, former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, is expected to win 10 seats after her previous party failed to pass the election threshold in April. The same is expected of the ultra-right Kahanist party, Otzma Yehudit, which is expected to garner four seats. The result is that there will be less wasted right-wing votes for parties who don’t make it, and Netanyahu will have a better chance of forming a coalition government.

But the prime minister isn’t sleeping well.

In a number of Facebook posts, he’s spoken of a possible loss. On Sunday night, he warned that, “At this moment, we are losing … We are neck-and-neck with Gantz and [his co-leader Yair] Lapid. In some polls, they have surpassed us. We need 61 mandates [to form a government], and we don’t have them,” he said.

In what critics see as a desperate move, Netanyahu has vowed to annex part of the occupied West Bank if he is returned to office next week. Palestinians say this will forever bury any chance of peace. The prime minister also again tried to expedite the approval of a contentious bill through Knesset that would allow party representatives to film inside polling stations. Netanyahu argued this was to prevent voting fraud, but many see it as an attempt to intimidate Arab voters and prevent them from turning out in large numbers to vote. This, in turn, would improve the chances of victory for the right-wing bloc.

The Central Election Committee, the attorney general, and Rivlin sharply criticised the attempt, which was finally dropped this week, for lack of parliamentary support. It’s worth nothing that in the summer election, Likud representatives placed 1 200 hidden cameras in Arab polling stations. The party argued that the filming was intended to prevent voting fraud but after the vote, representatives boasted that they had managed to reduce voter turnout in the Arab sector.

For Benny Begin, the son of legendary Likud leader Menachem Begin, and a former cabinet member himself, it was one move too far. This week, he announced he would no longer be voting for Likud, saying, “There should be a price for such arrogant, crude, and blunt behaviour.”

Begin’s announcement sent shockwaves through Israeli society, but it’s seen as more symbolic than likely to create an exodus from the party.

Netanyahu's response – in what critics also say is a desperate attempt by the prime minister to save face – was to unveil, a few hours after Begin’s announcement, yet another hidden Iranian nuclear site. In a short televised address on Monday, Netanyahu accused Tehran of conducting experiments at a secret nuclear facility in central Iran, violating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif responded furiously, accusing Netanyahu of seeking a war with his country at all costs. “The possessor of real nukes cries wolf – on an alleged ‘demolished’ site in Iran,” Zarif wrote on Twitter.

Netanyahu’s claims had already been backed up by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which said it had found traces of uranium at the site of the secret atomic warehouse. Netanyahu used the opportunity to call on the international community to increase its pressure on Iran.

It comes as United States President Donald Trump told White House reporters that he was open to meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month.

Netanyahu isn’t thrilled at the prospect, and speculation is rife that this was the motivation for his 24-hour visit to London last week to meet new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US Defense Secretary Mark Esper. Analysts suggest he wanted to meet Esper to lobby against what increasingly appears as an inevitable meeting between the Americans and Iranians.

“This is not the time to hold talks with Iran,” Netanyahu said before boarding his plane to London. “This is the time to increase pressure on Iran.” However, his tone later mellowed, and he said he would not presume to tell the American president whom he should meet.

Certainly Esper’s comments following the meeting suggest that Netanyahu’s appeals fell on deaf ears.

“It seems in some ways that Iran is inching towards that place where we could have talks and hopefully, it’ll play out that way,” the US defense secretary said.

Next week’s election comes at a less than ideal time for Netanyahu. During the last round five months ago, he was riding high on the success of American recognition of Israeli sovereignty in the Golan, a meeting with US President Donald Trump, and the return of the body of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel after 37 years.

This time around, Netanyahu is campaigning while under fire – literally – as Gaza rockets fall in southern Israel, and Hezbollah fires at the country’s northern border.

Even with just a week to go, it’s still difficult to predict the outcome of next week’s election. Most pundits suggest Netanyahu will win another term in office, but they’ve been proven wrong before. One thing is certain, though he has been in office for the past decade, Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival.

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