Benjamin Netanyahu remains neck and neck with his main election challenger after a widely condemned vow to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, before a vote that could bring an end to his time as Israeli prime minister.
In the last polls before election day on Tuesday, neither Netanyahu’s Likud party or the opposition Blue and White alliance, run by his former army chief Benny Gantz, appeared to have a clear route to the premiership.
Both would have to make deals with smaller parties to form a government, meaning the result of the vote could kick off weeks of political negotiations before it is clear who will be Israel’s next leader.
Fearing the end of his more than 13-year tenure – the longest of any Israeli leader – Netanyahu has made divisive and potentially explosive promises in the dying days of the campaign.
On Tuesday he vowed to extend Israeli sovereignty over Jewish settlements and up to a third of the occupied West Bank if he is re-elected. If carried out, the plan would trap more than 2.5 million Palestinians in dislocated enclaves surrounded by Israel.
The move, for decades considered an endgame scenario for Palestinians’ aspirations of statehood, was condemned by Arab countries, the UN and the EU as an illegal land grab.
Netanyahu is battling for his political survival, and the announcement was interpreted as a rallying cry to his hardline rightwing base.
Gantz has said he also supports annexation and accused Netanyahu of stealing his idea. “We are happy that Netanyahu has come around to adopt the Blue and White plan to recognise the Jordan Valley,” he said.
Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel-Aviv based political analyst and a public opinion expert, said annexation was popular with the rightwing voters Netanyahu was courting. “Overall, Israeli support for sovereignty in the West Bank is substantial,” the pollster wrote.
She said Netanyahu’s stance that not a single Palestinian living there would be given citizenship – and therefore voting rights – was critical to the support. “The public only unites against annexation when they realise Palestinians swept up in sovereignty might be equal to Israelis,” she said.
The Likud party has equally focused on Israel’s internal Arab minority, Palestinians who managed to stay on their land during Israel’s creation in 1948 and now account for up to a fifth of the population. Netanyahu sought to pass legislation this month that would allow political parties to put cameras in polling stations – a move condemned as voter intimidation, especially against Arabs.
Netanyahu has also warned, without evidence, that his opponents are trying to “steal” the election. And on Thursday Facebook temporarily shut down a chatbot on Netanyahu’s official page after it breached the company’s hate speech policy by sending visitors a message warning of Arabs who “want to destroy us all”.
Netanyahu used similar tactics in previous elections, particularly in 2015 when he claimed that Arabs were voting “in droves”. A columnist for the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper said the Facebook scandal, however, was the nadir of what was “the nastiest, most racist campaign ever”.
“The plunge to the bottom of the sewer, the dive into the depths of the morass that we’ve seen in the past few weeks – it has all come straight from the top,” wrote Yossi Verter.
Tuesday’s vote will be the second election held in five months after a political crisis in May scuppered the newly elected Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
Netanyahu appeared to have won the ballot in April when he and rightwing parliamentary allies came out ahead. However, his attempts to form a coalition government failed over disagreements between Jewish ultra-Orthodox parties and secular politicians.
Avigdor Lieberman, a former defence minister and leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, had sought guarantees that ultra-Orthodox religious students, who are largely exempt from conscription, would be forced to serve in the army.
Eventually, Netanyahu forced the Knesset to dissolve, triggering repeat elections and giving him another chance.
Lieberman, a Netanyahu ally-turned-rival, appears to be the biggest beneficiary of the second election. His public dispute with religious leaders has led to a jump in popularity, and it seems he could gather enough seats to become a kingmaker.
Analysts are predicting a relatively low turnout this time around, with voters not keen on having two elections in one year. Netanyahu published a poll on Twitter on Friday that showed Blue and White marginally ahead. “Anyone who wants a rightwing government must go out and vote,” he said.
The prime minister still faces three corruption scandals – charges he denies. Pre-trial hearings are to begin next month.
To win votes he has sought to play up his security credentials and international acumen, boasting of his close relationship with and influence on Donald Trump. That image took a hit this week after Trump suggested he would consider meeting the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani. Israel has sought to isolate its regional enemy.
A Thursday report by the news outlet Politico, which cited US officials as saying Israel was likely to have planted spying devices near the White House, has also come at a bad time for Netanyahu as it raises the prospect of adding tension to US-Israeli relations. Both Israel and the US have officially denied the claims.