The Israeli campaign trail is heating up as the April 9 elections draw closer. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a fast-growing opposition, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has said he plans to decide whether to indict the PM before the election, and Palestinian lawmakers are scrambling to finalize their slates ahead of their primaries.
Former Israeli military chief Benny Gantz, head of the new Hosen L’Yisrael party (Resilience for Israel), is making strides in his election campaign, with polls placing him at a near tie with Netanyahu — something no other candidate or party has managed to do in recent years.
Following Gantz’s first public speech in Tel Aviv earlier this week, Haaretz reported that if elections were held now, Gantz would receive 21 to 24 Knesset seats — eight seats up from the previous poll predictions.
In a poll conducted by Israel’s Channel 12 news station asking who voters wanted as Prime Minister, 36% of those polled said Netanyahu while 35% said Gantz.
Leaders of the centrist Yesh Atid party (There is a Future) are reportedly considering forming a joint center ticket with Gantz’s party following the ex-military chief’s spike in the polls.
If the two parties were to form a joint list with Gantz as their leader, polls predict they could win a plurality of 35 seats out of the 120-seat Knesset, compared to a predicted 30 to 31 seats for Netanyahu’s Likud party.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said in a statement on Friday that he sees no legal reason to delay reaching a decision on recommending to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery and corruption before the April 9 elections.
In a letter to Netanyahu’s legal team, which has been pressuring Mandelblit to delay his announcement until after the elections, Mandelblit said postponing his recommendations would “be a violation of the principle of equality before the law” and “is not in keeping with the public’s right to know,” Haaretz reported.
If Mandelblit were to announce his intention to indict Netanyahu before the election, polls suggest that Netanyahu could lose four Knesset seats.
Coupled with Gantz’s rising popularity, an announcement from Mandelblit could spell disaster for Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition, which initially sought the snap election with hopes it would increase his chances of reelection.
Where exactly does Gantz stand?
In the wake of Gantz’s official campaign announcement earlier this week, Netanyahu’s Likud party released a statement calling him “weak left.”
Ultra-nationalist Education Minister and founder of the “New Right” party in Israel, Naftali Bennett, called Gantz a “clear leftist” and said it would be “a danger to make him responsible again for Israel’s security.”
But Gantz, who released a campaign video proudly featuring images of a post-2014 Gaza devastated by war boasting that as military chief he sent “parts of Gaza back to the stone age,” is a self-declared “centrist,” and is considered by analysts as center-right.
In addition to his campaign video bragging about the number of Palestinians he killed in Gaza, Gantz pledged to “thwart the plots” of Iran across the region, and work against Iran “in the international arena, in the economic arena and in the military arena.”
“And if you do not understand the message in words, you will understand it with painful and precise blows,” he said, directly addressing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during his speech earlier this week.
Gantz also threatened Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, saying “I suggest you not test me again,” insinuating that the assassination of Hamas leaders would not be off the table under his government.
While he pledged to “allow any humanitarian assistance” and promote economic development in Gaza, Gantz said he would not allow the entrance of millions of dollars of Qatari aid to Gaza, saying “I will not allow the payment of protection cash payments in suitcases to murderous gangs.”
He also promised to strengthen illegal settlement blocs in the occupied Palestinian territory and the occupied Golan Heights, “from which we will never retreat.”
“The Jordan Valley will remain our eastern security border. We will maintain security in the entire Land of Israel, but we will not allow the millions of Palestinians living beyond the separation fence to endanger our security and our identity as a Jewish state,” he said. “United Jerusalem will be built, will grow – and will remain forever the capital of the Jewish people and the capital of the State of Israel.”
Palestinian parties face new challenges
Following the sudden departure of the Ta’al party from the Joint List political bloc — representing parties led by Palestinian citizens of Israel in Israeli parliament — the coalition of Palestinian lawmakers will be seeing some major changes in coming weeks.
Ta’al’s leader Ahmad Tibi announced his party’s departure in January following accusations of insufficient Ta’al representation in the Joint List.
His departure has hurt the popularity of current Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh, with polls indicating that 47% of Palestinian citizens of Israel prefer Tibi as chair of the bloc over Odeh.
According to Haaretz, the poll also found that if elections were held now, Tibi’s Ta’al would receive 43 percent of Palestinian votes, compared with 38 percent who said they’d vote for an alliance of the other Palestinian parties.
Hadash and Balad, two of the four factions that make up the Joint List, will be holding primary elections and finalizing their slates this weekend.
Sixteen new candidates are expected to compete for five spots on Balad’s slate, after two of the party’s Knesset members, Haneen Zoabi and Jamal Zahalka, announced they would not be running for reelection.
Despite all the new faces expected to emerge from this year’s Joint List and the decreasing popularity of Odeh, polls have projected that the bloc, even without Ta’al, will win 12 seats in the upcoming election, maintaining its status as the third largest bloc in the Knesset.
Meanwhile, according to Haaretz, 64% of Palestinians in Israel who participated in a survey said they were in favor of Palestinian parties joining the governing coalition, while 80% said they were in favor of “supporting the government from the opposition benches in exchange for increased government funding for their communities.”