Israelis are hitting the polls for the second time this year. The already unprecedented general election is also the culmination of an existential drama for PM Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Having already secured Washington’s backing for the Israeli claims to the Golan Heights and Jerusalem, Netanyahu had to up the stakes, vowing on the eve of the vote to annex Hebron as well as the Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley, if elected.
This may be a step farther than his main challenger, Benjamin ‘Benny’ Gantz of the Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) bloc is ready to take. However, Gantz himself is no dove, having overseen the 2012 and 2014 onslaughts against Gaza as chief of the general staff of the Israel Defense Forces.
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Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump is holding back his “deal of the century” peace plan pending the outcome of the election, with the clear implication that he is basing it on Netanyahu staying in power. Netanyahu, 69, is already the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, having held the reins of power for a total of 13 years so far: from 1996 to 1999, and then since 2009.
The election itself is a result of a failure to form a government following the vote in April, in which Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Blue and White were tied at 35 Knesset seats each, with smaller parties dividing the remaining 50. Neither managed to attract enough smaller parties to reach the bare minimum of 61 seats needed for a government, however, as conflict between the ultra-religious Haredim and the nationalist settlers scuttled coalition talks.
Five months later, the divisions are no less pronounced. With the once-dominant Labor party in free-fall since 2001, the majority of Israeli parties are on the right spectrum, but that only means the campaign has been divisive, intensely personal, and focusing on the tyranny of small differences.
“This is a vote about who Israelis want to be,” Professor Moshe Maoz of Hebrew University in Jerusalem told USA Today.