WITH just two days to go, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains in pole position to win the forthcoming general election, but his victory is unlikely to be far from a walkover.
Recent polls showed Israel’s right-wing and religious bloc winning a slim parliamentary majority of 63 out of 120 seats, with Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu group on course to be the largest party in the Knesset, albeit with eroding support.
However, a relatively weak showing at the ballot box for Netanyahu, 63, would make him more susceptible to the demands of his prospective coalition partners, smaller right-wing and religious parties on which his government would have to rely to survive.
Those parties are likely to include Netanyahu’s natural partners, the fiercely pro-settler Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) and ultra-orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism.
Netanyahu may also face more pressure from abroad, with international condemnation growing over the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem – land the Palestinians want for a state, along with the Gaza Strip.
Support is coming in from many directions. Yesterday, US billionaire Donald Trump announced he had recorded a YouTube endorsement of Netanyahu for re-election because the Israeli prime minister asked him to.
Trump told Shalom TV that Netanyahu called and asked if he would “do an ad or a statement” to support his campaign. The real estate tycoon said that Netanyahu was a “great man and a great prime minister”.
Yesterday, Netanyahu took on the settlements issue saying he would not give in to calls to halt or reverse the drive if re-elected.
“The days of bulldozers uprooting Jews are behind us, not ahead of us,” Netanyahu told Maariv newspaper. “I do not volunteer concessions. Our record shows that.
“We have not uprooted any settlement, we made settlements stronger.”
“The entire world will look at only one thing after the election, whether the ruling party has shrunk or grown. If we grow, that will give us the strength to face pressures,” said Netanyahu, clearly concerned by his recent decline in the polls.
He has attracted some unusual opposition. An Arab woman toiling on the fringes of Israeli politics for nearly two decades has broken out of obscurity in this year’s election with a non-conformist message that’s resonating with protest voters. The message of the Daam party is as unconventional as its leader, Asma Aghbaria-Zahalka, 39.
She preaches for the nationalisation of key industries – a rare idea in this capitalist land. She calls for coexistence with Israel’s Jewish majority as fervently as she demands Palestinian statehood. She’s a Palestinian woman who heads a Jewish-dominated party even though she hails from a conservative Muslim family.
Although she’s a long shot for a seat in parliament, Aghbaria-Zahalka has capitalised on exposure she gained during last year’s massive social protests across Israel. She has gone from talking to near-empty rooms to drawing packed crowds at meetings – including some in bars – where she urges listeners to vote her party on Tuesday. “People are searching today for an alternative,” Aghbaria-Zahalka told a packed, trendy bar on an evening in Jerusalem recently.
Observers often contrast her with Israel’s sole female Arab MP, Hanin Zoabi, whose passionate defence of the Palestinian cause has made her widely despised among Israeli Jews.
But despite his detractors, Netanyahu is still in prime position to secure a third term following a long and lacklustre campaign, largely devoid of emotion or central themes.
While support for centre-left parties has edged higher, they have failed to present a united front or convince most Israelis that they are ready to take charge of a country alarmed by turmoil in neighbouring Arab states.
Although Netanyahu has repeatedly said that dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions will be his priority if he wins re-election, the issue has barely registered on the campaign trail. A recent poll said 47 per cent of Israelis thought social and economic issues were the most pressing concern, against 10 per cent who cited Iran. Some 18 per cent saw negotiations with the Palestinians as the priority.
US-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in 2010, weeks after they had begun, over a dispute on continued settlement construction.
The Palestinians say Israeli settlements, deemed illegal by most of the world and United Nations’ resolutions, will deny them a viable state.
Israeli commentators have said Netanyahu might seek a partnership with at least one centrist party after the election to bring a more moderate voice into his cabinet and try to allay international concerns.
Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who heads Hatenuah (the Movement) and TV-star-cum-politician Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid (There is a Future), have not ruled out joining Netanyahu. They are projected to win up to eight and 13 seats respectively.
Labour, which is set to be the second largest party with up to 17 seats, has already said it will not join a Netanyahu government.