OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: With just four days until elections, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a last-minute pitch for votes Friday with a promise that not a single settlement would be removed if he was re-elected.
With opinion polls showing growing support for the hard-line pro-settler Jewish Home party of Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu talked up his own pro-settlement credentials in two interviews with Israeli newspapers.
Asked by the Maariv daily whether he could guarantee that, if re-elected, he would not demolish any Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, Netanyahu said: “Yes, correct. The days of bulldozers flattening settlements are behind us, not in front of us.”
“We haven’t evicted one settlement. We have strengthened the settlement enterprise,” he said, recalling how his government brought about the creation of the first-ever Israeli university over the Green Line, in the sprawling Ariel settlement deep in the northern West Bank.
“Nobody can give lessons to me ... about love for the Land of Israel and about commitment to Zionism or settlement,” he said in what was widely seen as remarks aimed at stemming the flow of votes to Bennett, whose party opposes a Palestinian state and champions accelerated settlement construction.
Figures published in the last opinion polls before Tuesday’s vote show the joint electoral list of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and the hard-line nationalist Yisrael Beitenu losing support to between 32 and 35 seats in the 120-member parliament, down from 42 in the outgoing Knesset.
At the same time, Jewish Home is undergoing a major revival under its charismatic new leader Naftali Bennett, a high-tech entrepreneur who makes no secret of his desire to annex more than 60 percent of West Bank land to Israel.
It won three seats in 2009, but is regularly seen as winning between 12 and 15 seats in the new parliament, which would make it the third largest party.
Even further to the right is Otzma LeYisrael, a new extremist anti-Arab party popular among hard-line settlers, which is seen taking up to three seats.
If the polls prove correct, the far-right and extremist bloc could end up with up to 18 seats, easily doubling the seven seats they took in 2009.
Netanyahu’s 11th-hour remarks “veered to the right on the question of settlements to try to woo Likud supporters tempted to vote for Jewish Home,” said Israeli public radio pundit Hanan Crystal.
“It is clear that in putting the question of settlements at the center he is looking to bring right-wing voters back into the fold,” he said, telling AFP the last-ditch appeal was “probably too late to influence the results.”
Friday’s batch of opinion polls – the last which can be legally published before Tuesday’s vote – showed Labor coming in second place with 16-17 seats, slightly above the top estimates for Jewish Home.
The new centrist Yesh Atid faction is seen taking 11-13 seats, and the ultra-Orthodox Shas is expected to win 10-12.
The centrist HaTnuah party of former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is expected to take seven or eight seats, closely followed by the leftwing Meretz, which is set to double its showing with five or six.