Benjamin Netanyahu feels the heat as support for far right rises

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, centre, in Jerusalem yesterday. Picture: AP
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, centre, in Jerusalem yesterday. Picture: AP
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If OPINION polls are borne out, Israeli voters will today elect the most hardline government in their country’s history, providing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a renewed mandate and giving strong backing to a far-right party that advocates annexation of most of the occupied West Bank.

Mr Netanyahu yesterday appealed to wavering supporters to “come home” and vote for his Likud-Beiteinu list rather than its rival, the Jewish Home party, which has steadily chipped away at Likud’s lead in opinion polls.

Mr Netanyahu said: “I appeal to each and every citizen to decide: are you going to vote for a weak and divided Israel or a united and strong Israel and governing party?”

With the Israeli peace camp weakened by the public perception that there is no Palestinian partner to talk to, for the first time since 1967 the campaign has not primarily been a contest between left and right over relations with Arab neighbours. Rather it appears to be a battle within the right wing over who can best advance the agenda of the Jewish settlers who now appear to constitute the country’s most influential group.

The last opinion polls suggested the right-wing bloc would gain 63 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. But the polls give only 32 seats to Likud-Beiteinu, ten less than it currently holds. Jewish Home is expected to gain 14 seats, many of them from disaffected Likud voters.

Jewish Home’s leader, hi-tech millionaire and former settlements council executive Naftali Bennett, is angling to become the senior coalition partner – although it is not clear Mr Netanyahu will agree to this, because it could put Israel on a collision course with the rest of the world.

Mr Bennett says Israel should annex most of the West Bank without regard to what the world thinks. His campaign video quotes Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion as saying: “It is not important what the gentiles think, but what the Jews do.”

Mr Bennett yesterday closed his campaign at the Western Wall, a Jewish holy site in East Jerusalem, where he prayed for the power to “restore Israel’s Jewish soul”.

This settlement hit the headlines recently when Mr Netanyahu announced plans for an expansion here, a move seen by the international community – including Britain – as foreclosing chances for an independent Palestinian state.

Yair Ben-David, a tourism worker, said of Mr Bennett: “I’m sure he will worry about the Jewish values and devotion to the Land of Israel that I believe in. He transmits a new spirit.”

Mr Ben-David also voiced enthusiasm for the “Calming Plan” for the West Bank that Mr Bennett has made a centrepiece of his campaign.

Under this, Israel will annex 62 per cent of the West Bank – the mostly rural parts known as area C that are under full Israeli control, where 350,000 Israeli settlers live in contravention of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Mr Bennett says Israel will give citizenship to 48,000 Palestinians living there, a move he claims will undermine critics who accuse the Jewish state of apartheid practices.

But Bimkom, a left-wing Israeli group that monitors planning policies, says Mr Bennett has minimised the Palestinian population of area C and that it actually numbers 148,000.

The remaining 38 per cent of the West Bank – housing 2.5 million Palestinians – will have autonomy while being under overall Israeli security control, according to the plan, whose avowed purpose is to put an end to talk of an independent Palestinian state.

Iris Sharon, 38, a housewife and Bennett supporter here, is not deterred by the possible international response. She said: “We have to decide what is good for the nation of Israel, not what is good for the gentiles.”

While Mr Bennett’s supporters credit him for running a positive campaign devoid of mud-slinging, left-wing critics point to planks in his party platform advocating the curtailment of powers of the country’s Supreme Court and proposing legislation to cut funding for B’tselem, the leading group monitoring Israeli practices in the occupied territories.

Yesterday, the Israeli Central Elections Committee was weighing whether to disqualify the number 14 on Mr Bennett’s list, Jeremy Gimpel, after a television station aired footage of him appearing to call for the Dome of the Rock Islamic shrine in East Jerusalem to be “blown up”.

Mr Gimpel says his comments were “a joke”.