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Netanyahu Fights for Election Survival 09/15 10:10

   A visibly frantic Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in the fight of his 
political life as the country heads to national elections for the second time 
this year.

   JERUSALEM (AP) -- A visibly frantic Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in 
the fight of his political life as the country heads to national elections for 
the second time this year.

   With Netanyahu locked in a razor tight race and facing the likelihood of 
criminal corruption charges, a decisive victory in Tuesday's vote may be the 
only thing to keep him out of the courtroom. A repeat of the deadlock in 
April's election, or a victory by challenger Benny Gantz, could spell the end 
of the career of the man who has led the country for the past decade.

   Netanyahu's daily campaign stunts have helped him set the national agenda 
--- a tactic the media-savvy Israeli leader has perfected throughout his three 
decades in national politics. But it may well be the things he can't control 
--- including a former political ally turned rival and Palestinian militants in 
the Gaza Strip --- that bring him down.

   Throughout the abbreviated campaign, Netanyahu has seemed to create new 
headlines at will. One day he is jetting off for meetings with world leaders. 
The next, he claims to unveil a previously undisclosed Iranian nuclear site. 
Then he vows to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. Nearly every day, he 
issues unfounded warnings about the country's Arab minority "stealing" the 
election, drawing accusations of incitement and racism.

   "Netanyahu is always worried. That's why he has survived this long," said 
Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist at the Haaretz newspaper and author of a recent 
biography of Netanyahu.

   "Every election campaign he enters convinced that he can lose, and that's 
how he fights it, with his back to the wall," he said.

   By many counts, the strategy has worked. Netanyahu, the country's 
longest-serving prime minister, has dominated the political discourse during a 
campaign that is seen as a referendum on his rule. His opponents, meanwhile, 
have been forced to react to his ever-shifting tactics.

   Netanyahu has turned to a familiar playbook --- presenting himself as a 
global statesman who is uniquely qualified to lead the country while also 
portraying himself as the underdog, lashing out at perceived domestic enemies 
who he claims are conspiring against him.

   During a Channel 12 TV interview late Saturday, Netanyahu appeared 
distressed and combative. He smirked, shook his head and raised his voice as he 
accused the media of "inciting" against him, angrily rejected the legal case 
against him and issued dire warnings that his Likud party will lose. "Victory 
is not in our pocket," he said.

   At the same time, he claimed the country understands that only he can lead. 
His campaign ads portray him as being in a "different league" and show him 
embracing his friend, President Donald Trump, as well as Russian President 
Vladimir Putin, India's Narendra Modi and other world leaders. Last week, 
Netanyahu rushed to Sochi, Russia, for talks with Putin about Iran.

   "The public is saying, 'We understand that you are a world-class leader,'" 
he told Channel 12.

   Echoing Trump, Netanyahu routinely lashes out at the media, the judiciary, 
prosecutors and other alleged foes. But it has been his attacks on Israel's 
Arab minority that have caused the most controversy. Netanyahu has long 
targeted Israeli Arabs to rally his working-class, nationalist base --- 
implying that they are a fifth column threatening the county.

   In the current campaign, he has taken these tactics to a new level. He 
sparked uproar by leading a failed effort to allow activists to film voters at 
polling stations, claiming without evidence that they were needed to prevent 
fraud in Arab districts.

   That was followed by a message on his Facebook page calling on voters to 
prevent the establishment of a government that includes "Arabs who want to 
destroy us all."

   Facebook determined the post violated its hate speech policy and sanctioned 
the page for 24 hours. Netanyahu said the post was a staffer's mistake and had 
been removed.

   Ayman Odeh, leader of the main Arab faction in parliament, accused Netanyahu 
of fearmongering. During a parliamentary session on the voting booth cameras, 
Odeh mocked Netanyahu by approaching the prime minister and pointing his 
cellphone camera at him, sparking a brief scuffle with other lawmakers.

   "He always looks for an enemy. Always," said Odeh. "This man offers no hope. 
He only uses fear."

   Days before the election, the race appears too close to call. Polls 
published over the weekend showed Netanyahu's Likud and Gantz's Blue and White 
neck and neck. Both parties fall far short of a majority in the 120-seat 
parliament, with their "blocs" of smaller allied parties also evenly divided.

   The stakes are especially high for Netanyahu. Israel's attorney general has 
recommended that Netanyahu be indicted in three corruption cases, pending a 
hearing scheduled in October.

   Although Netanyahu denies all charges, it is widely believed that he hopes 
to be able to form a narrow coalition of hard-line and religious parties 
willing to grant him immunity from prosecution.

   If he falls short, he could find himself in the opposition or forced into a 
partnership with centrist rivals who have no interest in protecting him from 
prosecutors.

   "He has no limits, because his only goal today is to avoid going to trial," 
said Stav Shaffir, a candidate with the leftist Democratic Union party. "He's 
afraid. But the thing is his fear is now used to threaten Israeli democracy. 
He's tearing apart Israeli society," she said.

   This week's election was triggered by Avigdor Lieberman, a longtime ally 
turned rival who refused to join Netanyahu's coalition last April, robbing him 
of a majority, because of what he said was excessive influence by Jewish 
ultra-Orthodox religious parties.

   Lieberman is once again playing hard to get. His Yisrael Beitenu party has 
emerged as a likely kingmaker, and he is demanding the formation of a secular 
unity government.

   Lieberman also has repeatedly seized on the prime minister's failure to stop 
rocket fire launched by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

   Despite Netanyahu's attempts to divert attention from the issue, he was 
embarrassed last week when air raid sirens disrupted a campaign rally in 
southern Israel and he was whisked away to safety. The clip spread quickly on 
social media and was repeatedly played on Israeli TV stations.

   Even Netanyahu's much-hyped friendship with Trump has not delivered major 
results. During the first campaign early this year, Trump gave Netanyahu a 
boost by inviting him to the White House, where he recognized Israeli 
sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 
war.

   This time around, Trump has instead alarmed the Israelis by declaring his 
readiness to meet with the president of Iran, Israel's archenemy, and then 
firing National Security Adviser John Bolton, an Iran hawk who was a strong 
Israel supporter in the White House.

   "It seems that the gift that never stops giving, Donald Trump, has stopped 
cooperating with Netanyahu at the most critical junction in time," columnist 
Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv daily.

   "But no one should eulogize Netanyahu just yet," he added. "He still has a 
few days left. More dramatic announcements still lie ahead."

   Late on Saturday, Trump delivered a small election gift, announcing on 
Twitter that he was exploring a possible defense pact with Israel.

   While less dramatic than the Golan announcement last spring, Netanyahu 
happily accepted the gesture, thanking his "dear friend" and trumping it as 
"historic."


(KR)

 
 
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