Netanyahu panders to the right, attacks media in final stretch of campaign

Like statements about the settlements, attacks against the media are part of Netanyahu’s old playbook.
Saturday 07/09/2019
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks during a ceremony in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Hebron, September 4. (AP)
Victory or prison. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gestures as he speaks during a ceremony in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Hebron, September 4. (AP)

LONDON - For the unofficial start of Israel’s campaign ahead of the September 17 election and the opening of the new school year, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited the Jewish settlement of Elkana in the occupied West Bank.

Addressing first-grade students, he said: “God willing, we will impose Israeli sovereignty in all the communities as part of the land of Israel and the state of Israel.”

Under tight security, Netanyahu also visited the West Bank city of Hebron, where he vowed that Jews would “remain in it forever.”

Less than two weeks before the elections, Netanyahu is pandering to the right wing to ensure his political survival. The potential extension of sovereignty to the Jewish settlements in what most of the international community regards as occupied Palestinian territory is a crucial part of that.

Netanyahu also launched a scathing attack against local media, singling out journalists and news executives of Channel 12 and its parent company as part of a “terror attack against democracy.” Reporting by Channel 12 included excerpts from the police investigation into a corruption case that Netanyahu could be indicted for.

Like statements about the settlements, attacks against the media are part of Netanyahu’s old playbook. The prime minister hopes to assure settlers and other right-wing groups that his Likud party is their natural home, as he faces fierce competition on the right.

The fact that Netanyahu did not directly speak of annexation in Elkana “lends itself to extending certain Israeli laws and regulations to the Israeli settlements across the West Bank rather than annexing the settlements and thus applying all Israeli laws to them at once,” said Ofer Zalzberg, senior analyst in the International Crisis Group’s Arab-Israel Project.

Netanyahu avoided such steps in the past, Zalzberg said, but because of changes in the domestic and international arena, he now seems to think limited steps in that direction are feasible. If a few laws were extended to the settlements in a gradual manner, less harm would be done to relations with Arab countries than a direct annexation, he said.

Nour Odeh, a political analyst and former Palestinian government spokeswoman, said Netanyahu’s statements showed his need to garner support and that he feels “more empowered than ever before,” in part because of support from the Trump administration.

Polling suggests a tight race between Likud and the Blue and White alliance, run by Netanyahu’s main rival, former military head Benny Gantz.

In a polling average from August 16-September 1 compiled by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Likud and Blue and White were tied with 31 out of 120 seats in the Knesset. The Joint List, an alliance of Arab parties, and right-wing parties Yisrael Beytenu and Yamina would win 10.5 seats each. To form a governing coalition, 61 seats are needed.

Subsequent polling by Channel 12 and 13 showed Likud and Blue and White tied at 32 seats. 

As was the case after the elections last April, Avigdor Liberman, Yisrael Beytenu’s leader, could become the kingmaker. The Soviet-born politician was once a close ally of Netanyahu but rejected calls to join the government this year over a dispute relating to military conscription rates for the ultra-Orthodox.

Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, sees a chance for increased Arab influence after the elections, having offered to join a moderate coalition under Gantz. “The truth is we could be the real deciding factor in this election,” Odeh told the Associated Press.

Whether Odeh’s offer will play a role will to a large extent depend on the actions and results of smaller right-wing parties. Netanyahu has been working to convince several smaller parties to drop out of the race to avoid a situation in which they fail to clear the 3.25% electoral threshold. His goal is to not “waste” right-wing votes and instead collect them for Likud.

The prime minister forged an agreement with the Zehut party by which it would drop out of the race in exchange for a ministerial post and the liberalisation of the medical marijuana market.

Another right-wing force, the extremist Otzma Yehudit party, has refused to bow out of the race, even after a reported offer by Netanyahu to lower the electoral threshold for the next elections. Former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a rising star on the right, warned that the party’s potential seats would be handed to the left.

Amid all the political manoeuvring, there have reportedly been attempts to sideline Netanyahu to forge a deal between Likud and other parties. Gantz raised the possibility of leading a liberal, Zionist unity government with Likud and other parties that support his agenda. Blue and White has previously ruled out serving under Netanyahu while he has several corruption cases pending. One high-ranking Likud official dismissed the possibility of a unity government without Netanyahu.

When Israelis go to the polls September 17, they will not only decide Netanyahu’s political future but also influence his personal fate because he could be sentenced to prison if a trial goes ahead and he is unable to secure parliamentary immunity.

With or without Netanyahu, Nour Odeh said she saw little prospect of real change for Palestinians without outside intervention, as Israeli politics had veered “too far to the right.”