- - Sunday, September 15, 2019

JERUSALEM — Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself under fire — figuratively and literally — as he battles to save his job and extend his dominance of the Israeli political scene.

In his second national election campaign in six months, the hawkish prime minister was forced last week to leave a party rally briefly in the coastal city of Ashdod because of incoming rocket fire from Palestinian militant groups in Gaza. It wasn’t the image he intended to convey just hours after a momentous announcement that his government would consider annexing a swath of the West Bank in the Jordan Valley if he is reelected.

Pollsters say the do-over election Tuesday could prove a rerun, leaving the political balance of power deeply unsettled. Voters in April gave Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party 35 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, forcing the prime minister to seek out coalition partners. When extensive negotiations with smaller, right-wing parties failed to secure a governing majority, Mr. Netanyahu took the unprecedented step of dissolving the Israeli government and immediately calling for new national elections.

Final pre-election polling last week showed Mr. Netanyahu once again running almost even with his main competitor, the center-left Blue and White party and its allies. Israel’s Kan channel predicts 31 seats for Likud and 33 for the Blue and White. Another survey shows Likud winning with 36 seats followed by Blue and White with 32.

Whether the left or right blocs will have an easier time finding dance partners this time is an open question, Israeli political handicappers say. Some are comparing the second vote to the movie “Groundhog Day,” repeating the same day again and again without any forward movement.

Some are speculating about different aftermaths, including a “unity government” of Mr. Netanyahu and his leftist rivals or a Likud government without Mr. Netanyahu at the helm.

The election will be watched closely across the region and in Washington, where Mr. Netanyahu has proved a key ally of President Trump in the effort to contain Iran. The Trump administration has delayed the release of its long-awaited political portion of its Israeli-Palestinian peace plan until after the vote, and a Netanyahu loss could force a massive rethinking of U.S. plans for the rollout.

A loss could be personally perilous for the prime minister, who early next month faces more hearings on charges of bribery and breach of trust in a long-running corruption investigation. Mr. Netanyahu insists he is innocent and has accused prosecutors of conducting a political witch hunt.

Mr. Netanyahu has tried to strengthen his hand by appealing to the right with his promise of major annexations on the West Bank. He has also sought, unsuccessfully, to have cameras at polling stations in minority Arab communities. Critics say the move was designed to depress turnout in precincts hostile to the prime minister.

Risking a backlash

The populist appeal comes at a price and risks a backlash for Likud.

Facebook suspended a Messenger “chatbot” on Mr. Netanyahu’s homepage. The reason given was that the chatbot violated the social media giant’s hate speech regulations for saying “Arabs want to destroy us all.” Likud blamed the inclusion of the chatbot on a staffer it said had been fired.

The controversies about Arab polling stations and the chatbot conjure memories of the bitter 2015 election, when Mr. Netanyahu appeared behind in the polls and helped turn around the result with a last-minute video claiming Arab voters were “flocking to the polls in droves.”

Campaigning in Israel has featured numerous tactics. Supporters of the left-leaning Democratic Union have sent text messages to voters. The Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party that campaigns mostly among Sephardic or Mizrahi Jews, has signs claiming the ballot is a ticket on “Judgment Day,” suggesting it is a religious commandment to vote for the party. Another ultra-Orthodox grouping, the United Torah Judaism party, has an ad showing secular adults ruining Shabbat for religious children, playing to fears of the secular center and left among their voters.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, is widely seen as a lackluster campaigner compared with Mr. Netanyahu, though some see him as an appealing alternative for voters tired of the near-constant drama of the Netanyahu years.

“His low-key style and relative ineloquence are for many a modest man’s refreshing antithesis to Bibi’s perceived bluster and soloism. Gantz is seen as balanced, cautious and pragmatic,” Amotz Asa-El, a research fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, told the Reuters news agency last week, referring to Mr. Netanyahu by his popular nickname.

Voter turnout was only 68% in April, and it appears headed to lower levels this week, scrambling the calculations of party strategists. Apathy is spread across the country, and the election may hinge on the success of smaller parties in turning out their base.

Polls show the Joint List, a combination of several Arab parties and a far-left Jewish-Arab party, receiving around 10 seats, two Orthodox religious parties winning a combined 14 seats, and several right-wing parties getting up to 23 seats. Should the projections hold, the math of coalition politics will make it hard for the parties on the left, including Labor, Gesher and the Democratic Union, to secure the 61 Knesset seats needed to oust Mr. Netanyahu from power.

More likely, in yet another repeat of the April election, the Yisrael Beitnu (Israel, Our Home) party could win about 10 seats and once again play the role of kingmaker. But the party’s strong-willed leader, Avigdor Lieberman, who was once close to Mr. Netanyahu and a defense minister in his Cabinet, has rejected a coalition with the religious Orthodox parties in the past. That refusal sunk Mr. Netanyahu’s spring attempts to form a government and could very well do so again after the Tuesday vote.

A ‘league of his own’

Mr. Netanyahu has positioned himself once again as in a “league of his own,” according to campaign posters plastered across highways and on buildings throughout Israel. Campaign ads show him shaking hands with President Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders.

The message: Only the incumbent prime minister has the stature on the world stage to ensure Israel’s security and protect its interests in the region. Mr. Netanyahu darkly warns that a war could break out at any moment in Gaza and could involve a wide-scale campaign against the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Mr. Netanyahu’s itinerary reflects the message he is telling voters while appealing to key parts of the electorate. In recent weeks, he has met with Mr. Putin, the new leaders of Ukraine and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. It just so happens that Israel has significant blocs of voters whose roots trace back to those three countries.

In Israel, war and politics often mix. Mr. Netanyahu’s trip to Ashdod, where he found himself under rocket fire from Gaza, was only part of rising tensions in the region.

On Sept. 9, rockets were fired from Syria at Israel but failed to cross the border because of a malfunction. Israeli defense officials accused Shiite militia fighters operating under Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds Force of being responsible. Two days later, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah pledged support for Iran’s supreme leader. Israel has warned that Iran’s IRGC is facilitating precision-guided missile deliveries for Hezbollah.

In recent weeks, Hezbollah has fired anti-tank missiles into Israel and accused Israel of launching drones into Beirut. Supporters of Iran in Syria and Iraq have accused Israel of attacks. Hamas, meanwhile, says it will foil Mr. Netanyahu’s plan for annexation.

The tensions have traditionally been a political boon for Mr. Netanyahu, who has long positioned himself as the one man able to defend Israel’s interests in a dangerous and often hostile neighborhood. But the Ashdod event may have put a dent in that image, providing an opening for the prime minister’s critics.

“A red alert this evening in Ashdod while Netanyahu is on stage is a red flag for the citizens of Israel,” Yair Lapid, a co-leader of the Blue and White party, wrote after the incident. “Netanyahu is done and can leave the stage.”

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