As Israelis went to the polls Tuesday in an election whose result remains too close to call, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued a last-ditch effort to rally hard-right voters. He used language that offended some Israelis and that others found desperate.
Netanyahu reiterated his promise that there would be no establishment of a Palestinian state on his watch – a reversal of his stated position of six years. The preference among the international community, most prominently the U.S, is what is called a “two-state solution” to the dispute between Arabs and Israelis. The dispute is about control of much of the territory on the West Bank of the Jordan River, between Israel proper and its eastern neighbor, Jordan.
Claiming his primary challenger, Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union, would be ready to concede territory currently controlled by Israel to Palestinians, Netanyahu promised he would not tolerate the creation of a Palestinian state – nor would he surrender any territory to Palestinians, he said.
The change in tone may help Netanyahu maintain his hold on office if it pushes more hardliners to go to the polls. But it will vastly complicate his relationship with the U.S. and Europe. Much of the support the U.S. provides Israel, in no small part through votes in the United Nations Security Council, is justified by the Israeli government’s willingness, at least, to engage in negotiations about Palestinian self-determination. With Netanyahu unilaterally foreclosing on the possibility – the international calculus may change dramatically.
Netanyahu also raised eyebrows on Tuesday with his warning to security-conscious Israelis. “Arab voters are going to the polls in droves. Left-wing organizations are bringing them in buses,” he said. The Arab voters, of course, are Israeli citizens fully entitled to vote. Many commentators pounced on Netanyahu’s comment, claiming it suggested the prime minister doesn’t consider Israeli Arabs true Israelis.
Netanyahu has also, in recent days, claimed to be the victim of an international conspiracy, funded in part by unnamed “Scandinavian governments” to unseat him.
The final public opinion polls before Election Day had Netanyahu’s Likud Party earning about 21 seats in the next parliament, with Herzog’s Zionist Union picking up about 25. Regardless of the precise totals, both men will likely spend the next few days furiously courting the heads of other, smaller parties in an effort to assemble a coalition of 61 seats – a majority of the 120-seat body and the minimum needed to form a government.
The polls close at 10 p.m. in Israel, but official results won’t be available for some hours afterward. The coming struggle to form a coalition could be over quickly – though it could also take weeks to play out.
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