Israelis prepare to vote after campaign courted settlers, provoked Arab minority
LONDON - As Israelis prepare to vote March 2 in their third legislative elections in less than a year, opinion polls put Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party slightly ahead of former army chief Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White alliance.
However, as neither party is likely to secure a comfortable majority in parliament, Israel seems headed for another impasse.
Netanyahu is counting on the support of the more than 450,000 settlers. In the decade since he has been prime minister, the settler population has shot up 50%, with growth spiking since Netanyahu’s ally Donald Trump became US president.
Netanyahu has emphasised his proximity to Trump, whose peace plan gives Israel the green light for the annexation of more than 130 West Bank settlements.
Far-right Defence Minister Naftali Bennett in late February announced nearly 1,800 new homes in West Bank settlements. “We don’t wait. We act,” Bennett said in a statement. “We will not give an inch of the land of Israel to the Arabs but, for that, we must build there.”
Likud has sought to portray Gantz as soft on Iran and too conciliatory towards the Palestinians. It depicted him as dependent on the votes of Arab-Israelis, who make up 21% of Israel’s population.
Netanyahu said that to win enough support in parliament to govern, Blue and White would need backing from the Joint List, an Arab coalition led by legislators Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi. Their names often come up in Netanyahu’s addresses and tweets.
Tibi accused Netanyahu of incitement against Israel’s Arab minority. A medical doctor, Tibi said: “It can be diagnosed as ‘Tibi-phobia’.”
The Joint List intensified its efforts during the closing days of the campaign. Its officials said they hope to win 18 or 19 seats in the 120-seat parliament, compared to 13 seats in the most recent election. They figure that each seat they win is a seat lost for Netanyahu’s legislative candidates.
The issue of Israel’s Arab minority is unlikely to go away after the elections. Part of the US peace plan backs the transfer of Israel’s so-called “Arab Triangle” region into a future Palestinian state. If implemented, some Arab Israelis could have their citizenship changed against their will.
“The core problem with this plan is the prime minister is talking about how he will get rid of part of his citizens,” Odeh told Agence France-Presse.
Netanyahu subsequently said he was opposed to population transfers.
For many Palestinians, Gantz is remembered as the general in charge of the Israeli military in 2014 when about 2,300 Palestinians were killed in fighting in Gaza. He has publicly embraced Trump’s Middle East plan.
Despite calling it a “historic milestone,” Gantz also seemed to hint at reservations over the implementation of the US plan.
“Immediately after the elections, I will work towards implementing it from within a stable, functioning Israeli government, in tandem with the other countries in our region,” he said.
Countering Netanyahu’s attacks, Gantz has tried to keep the spotlight on Netanyahu’s corruption trial, scheduled to begin March 17.
“The man charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust has nothing to sell other than disseminated lies and slung mud,” Gantz tweeted about Netanyahu a week before the election. “Israel needs a full-time prime minister.”
Gantz’s Blue and White alliance has focused on the former general’s military background. Gantz rejected Netanyahu’s attempts at mocking him for a speech impediment that causes him occasionally to stammer.
“So I don’t speak like you. Big deal,” Gantz said. “While you were taking acting classes in New York, I was defending this country.”