Netanyahu takes centre stage in Israeli election battle

  • Mon,24 Feb 2020 10:38:14 PM

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is revelling in Israel's election campaign, strutting the stage, boasting of achievements and laying into rivals. Unsurprisingly, he largely steers clear of mentioning the corruption trial hanging over him.

Opinion polls put Netanyahu's right-wing Likud just ahead of former general Benny Gantz's centrist Blue and White party before the March 2 election.

But the polls also suggest neither will secure a governing majority in parliament, heralding another stalemate after Israel's third national election in less than a year.

Netanyahu, 70, has been campaigning across the country and tweeting prolifically, labelling Gantz, 60, a "weakling" and a "leftist".

Israel's longest-serving leader oozes confidence, even though he faces charges of breach of trust and fraud in a case that goes to trial on March 17. He has denied any wrongdoing.

"Thank you Akko!" Netanyahu bellows at a rally in an auditorium in the northern city against an on-stage backdrop of Likud supporters.

"Going into the election, we have made tremendous accomplishments," Netanyahu says. "We have turned Israel into a world power."

"Bibi, King of Israel," the audience chants, injecting his childhood nickname into a song hailing the Bible's King David.

Netanyahu, in office from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009, remains popular with die-hard supporters despite the looming trial.

He accuses prosecutors of mounting an attempted coup against a popular right-wing leader, a message that chimes with Netanyahu's power base of low-income Israelis who see him as a blue-collar champion and world statesman.

"I will tell you 'why Bibi'," vendor Oshir Biton said in Jerusalem's Mahne Yehuda open market, where pro-Netanyahu sentiment has long been strong. "There is calm in the country, there is (a) good economy, people are happy, travelling abroad back and forth, enjoying life."

Many other voters balk at backing a man facing trial.

"I can't blindly trust a person once there are criminal charges against him. I can't trust a person before he brings the truth to light," said Bar Levav Nave, an 18-year-old first-time voter from Har Hemed settlement in the occupied West Bank.



As in campaigning for the inconclusive elections on April 9 and Sept. 17 last year, Netanyahu, who was educated in the United States, has highlighted his strong relationship with President Donald Trump, portraying him as the best friend Israel has had in the White House.

"In the past three years, I asked him for a number of things," he said at the Akko event.

"Here's what he did: he withdrew from the dangerous nuclear deal with Iran, he declared Jerusalem Israel's capital, he moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, he recognised our sovereignty over the Golan Heights," he said, referring to territory seized by Israel in a 1967 war.

A Middle East plan announced by Trump last month, but rejected by Palestinians as biased towards Israel, has given Netanyahu a new opportunity to draw votes away from the far-right and strengthen Likud.

In response to demands by ultranationalist allies, he has pledged to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and the Jordan Valley.

Netanyahu has also attacked Gantz over a police investigation into a contract that an artificial intelligence company once headed by the ex-general secured with the police, though Gantz has not been named as a suspect and the firm is now bankrupt.

At times, Netanyahu has been accused of going too far with his tweets and criticisms. After mocking Gantz for appearing to stammer in interviews, he had to apologise on social media for any offence he might have caused "people with disabilities" following criticism by the Israel Stuttering Association.

Netanyahu's main attack on Gantz revolves around post-election coalition building, saying the former chief of Israel's armed forces would ultimately be controlled by the country's Arab politicians, an allegation the challenger denies.

Netanyahu said that to win enough support in parliament to govern, Blue and White will need backing from the Joint List, an Arab party led by legislators Ayman Odeh and Ahmad Tibi. Their names often come up in Netanyahu's addresses and tweets.

Speaking to Reuters, Tibi accused Netanyahu of incitement against Israel's 20-percent Arab minority. A medical doctor, Tibi said: "It can be diagnosed as 'Tibi-phobia'".




(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub and Maayan Lubell, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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