Netanyahu vows to extend sovereignty to West Bank settlements if elected

The outcome of the election, and Israel’s future, remains up for grabs

Benny Gantz, former Israeli army chief of staff and candidate for prime minister of the Blue and White centrist political party, during the final stage of his electoral campaign in Tel Aviv, on Sunday.  Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA

Benny Gantz, former Israeli army chief of staff and candidate for prime minister of the Blue and White centrist political party, during the final stage of his electoral campaign in Tel Aviv, on Sunday. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA

 

Ahead of Tuesday’s election, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has vowed to extend Israeli sovereignty to West Bank settlements if he is re-elected for a fifth term.

Rejecting Palestinian statehood, which he said would “endanger our existence”, Netanyahu promised to extend Israeli rule to isolated hilltop communities in addition to the main settlement blocs.

Asked during a pre-election interview on Channel 12 television over the weekend why he had not extended Israeli sovereignty to large settlements in the West Bank, Mr Netanyahu for the first time made a pledge to do so.

“You are asking whether we are moving on to the next stage - the answer is yes, we will move to the next stage,” he said. “I am going to extend sovereignty and I don’t distinguish between settlement blocs and the isolated settlements.”

In a separate newspaper interview he indicated that Ma’ale Adumim, a large settlement city of 40,000 residents close to Jerusalem, could be the first community to be annexed if he heads the next government.

‘Real problem’

Palestinian foreign minister Riad Malki warned that Netanyahu will face a “real problem” if he follows through with his election campaign promise, vowing that Palestinians would resist such a policy.

The annexation card was a clear ploy to siphon votes from the smaller right-wing parties as the election campaign moved into the endgame.

However, the tactic to win votes for his ruling Likud party at the expense of other right-wing parties is a risky strategy.

Polls show a tight contest with the Likud trailing to the centrist Blue and White party, led by former top general Benny Gantz, by between 1-5 seats in the 120-seat Knesset parliament, but the right-wing/religious bloc still leading the centre-left-Arab bloc by a gap of between 6-12 seats.

The key remains how many of the smaller right-wing parties will manage to pass the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent – the equivalent of 4 seats- required for Knesset representation. If Netanyahu’s last-minute blitz results in a number of his potential coalition allies failing to pass the threshold he may be jeopardising the mathematical advantage of the right-wing bloc.

This election campaign has been described as one of dirtiest in Israel’s history, with almost daily allegations, usually unfounded, and mud-slinging, much of it on social media.

Sexual misconduct

The right accused Mr Gantz of sexual misconduct as a youth, of mental illness and being susceptible to blackmail from Iranian intelligence which reportedly gained access to sensitive private data after hacking his cellphone.

The left accused Netanyahu of endangering Israeli security by granting approval for the sale of advanced German-manufactured submarines to Egypt, suggesting that Netanyahu had benefited financially from the deal.

Mr Netanyahu rejected a media report that the Likud was behind a network of hundreds of social media accounts working to boost his campaign and smear his opponents.

Essentially, this election will be a referendum: yes or no to Binyamin Netanyahu.

All other issues have failed to gain traction in the election campaign.

The fact that Israel has the worst traffic jams and the most overcrowded hospital emergency rooms in developed countries failed to feature prominently the campaign.

Also conspicuous by its absence were clear-cut proposals by the parties to end the constant cycles of violence on the Gaza border and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, now in its fifth decade.

Bribery

It was all about Bibi, who aims to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister in July, even though Israel’s attorney-general announced at the end of February that he intended to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, pending a hearing that will take place after the election.

Mr Netanyahu has made it clear that he won’t resign, even if indicted and will fight what he calls the “left-wing conspiracy” to topple him. The opposition fears that if he wins the election he may push through legislation granting immunity to lawmakers.

When Netanyahu opted to bring the election forward in late December he looked odds-on favourite to win. However, the emergence of the Blue and White party led by Gantz alongside two other former top generals, together with the centrist Yesh Atid party, headed by former finance minister Yair Lapid, shuffled the pack, creating a serious challenge to Netanyahu’s dominance of Israeli politics.

Trump

Even president Donald Trump’s gift, recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, wasn’t enough to ensure that the Likud will become the largest party after Tuesday’s vote.

Mr Gantz, appealing to his supporters over the weekend, said there was a real opportunity for change.

“He is up to his neck in investigations, indictments, in a discourse of hatred and incitement. The time has come to tell him after 13 years: Thank you, Bibi, enough.”

The outcome of the election, and Israel’s future, remains up for grabs.