(Bloomberg) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought his cabinet to the West Bank on Sunday to legalize a Jewish settlement outpost, as he recycles a familiar litany of promises and warnings to try to win a tight re-election race.
Polls show his Likud party and former military chief Benny Gantz’s Blue and White bloc in a dead heat ahead of Tuesday’s election, and Netanyahu has gone on a campaign blitz warning that a government led by his rival would make dangerous concessions to the Palestinians and Iran. Facing a potential indictment for bribery and fraud, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is in the fight of his political life.
The prime minister has been in power a total of 13 years, but annexing West Bank territory — a cause dear to hawkish voters’ hearts but widely opposed internationally — hadn’t been a part of his agenda until the last election in April. Yet with nationalist rivals making it a centerpiece of their platforms in Tuesday’s revote, Netanyahu called a “dramatic” news conference last week to announce plans to go ahead with such a move.
He followed up on Sunday by convening his cabinet in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley to approve the legalization and expansion of a previously unauthorized settler outpost.
“It is important that we ensure the future of the Jordan Valley as part of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said.
Annexation of West Bank land is anathema to Palestinians who see that territory as the core of any future state. Netanyahu’s plan has been denounced by the United Nations and European powers who see annexation as a violation of international law.
Final polls released Friday gave Likud a slight bump, but if they’re on the mark, his right-wing and religious allies will still need help forming a governing coalition either from fickle former protege Avigdor Liberman or the opposing camp. His political messaging is designed to avoid that scenario and assure his political survival with a clean win at the polls.
Besides annexation vows, other tactics Netanyahu’s repeddling include:
Netanyahu is drawing on his close bond with the U.S. president and the rewards that’s produced, like the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and American recognition of Israeli control over the Golan Heights. Trump tossed out another bonbon on Saturday when he announced that he and Netanyahu discussed the possibility of moving forward with a U.S.-Israel defense treaty.
Just in case Trump is not enough of an ace in the hole, Netanyahu’s jetted off this month to London and Russia to display his diplomatic chops in meetings with Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
One of Netanyahu’s signature issues is keeping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. In the lead-up to voting he laid out new allegations that Iran conducted nuclear experiments it sought to hide and confirmed Israeli military action against Iranian targets in Syria. Rivals accuse him of politicizing national security and intelligence.
There was a late-day surge in 2015 voting after Netanyahu warned that Arabs were “coming out in droves” to vote. This time he’s trying to juice Likud turnout by warning that a Gantz-led government would be propped up by an Israeli Arab party. His party’s Facebook chat bot was suspended after it called on voters to block formation of a left-wing government that will rest on “Arabs who want to destroy us all — women, children and men — and allow a nuclearized Iran that will annihilate us,” the Haaretz newspaper said. Netanyahu said the message was posted “mistakenly” by a campaign employee.
Netanyahu has warned nationalist voters that if they vote for other parties, his party might not be the largest and won’t be tapped by President Reuven Rivlin to form the next government. While party size isn’t the only determiner, he’s trying to avoid giving Blue and White any possible edge — and deny leverage to his would-be governing allies.
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