Warning his supporters there was a real danger Tuesday’s election could bring a leftist government to power in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue with his controversial settlement expansion program in a last-ditch appeal to right-wing voters.
Speaking at a rally made up mostly of settlers and national religious voters in Tel Aviv, the prime minister promised his government would never divide Jerusalem and that – in contravention of international law – it would keep building settlements in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“As long as the Likud is in power, there will be no concessions or withdrawals [from the occupied territories],” he told the cheering crowds.
Unofficial estimates indicated the turnout was smaller than a rally of left-wing voters a week earlier.
Mr Netanyahu’s Likud Party is trailing by at least four seats in the latest polls behind the rival Zionist Union, a centre-left alliance of the Labor Party, headed by Isaac Herzog and Hatnua, headed by Tzipi Livni, who was justice minister in the ruling coalition before Mr Netanyahu called early elections last December.
His campaign’s focus on security issues and in particular, Iran’s nuclear program, has left many voters cold – they say that cost of living and affordable housing are their top priorities.
The last opinion polls before the March 17 election were published on Friday – they estimate the Zionist Union would win between 24 and 26 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, compared to 20-22 seats for Mr Netanyahu’s Likud Party.
Likud’s poor polling promoted a surge of frenzied campaigning from Mr Netanyahu, including what many have interpreted as a “paranoid” Facebook post in which he accused a conspiracy of foreign governments and left-wing parties of trying to topple his government.
“Leftist activists and the foreign and international media are conspiring to get Tzipi [Livni] and Buji [the nickname of Isaac Herzog] elected via illegitimate means, using innuendo and foreign money,” Mr Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page.
He warned: “Those foreign organisations understand that if Tzipi and Buji are in charge, they will give up everything. They’ll withdraw to the 1967 boundaries and they will divide Jerusalem.”
He repeated those accusations at the Tel Aviv rally: “Our rivals are investing a huge effort to harm me and the Likud, to open a gap between my party, the Likud, and [our competition], and if we don’t close this gap, there is a real danger that a left-wing government will rise to power,” Mr Netanyahu said.
The leader of the far-right Jewish Home Party, Naftali Bennett, also addressed the rally, saying these elections would decide whether “Israel remains a Jewish State”.
But it is not just voters who care about economic issues who have turned against the ruling Likud Party, it is also security experts who have despaired at Mr Netanyahu’s insistence on focusing on Iran above all else.
“You and you alone turned the United States from an ally into an enemy,” Shabtai Shavit, a former chief of the Mossad spy agency, said of Mr Netanyahu’s actions, including his widely-condemned Iran speech to the US Congress earlier this month.
Another retired Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, has also been outspoken in his criticisms of the prime minister’s security credentials, saying he had a “lack of vision and loss of direction”.
Whichever party wins, it will have to form a coalition in order to lead the government.
The other parties include: the Arab Joint List, which is polling at between 13 and 14 seats, Yesh Atid and Jewish Home are both on 12 seats and Kulanu polled at 10. Among the smaller parties, Shas remained on seven seats, United Torah Judaism polled at six seats, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, Yahad and Meretz all got five seats in the final polling.