Elections in Israel: Netanyahu playing the security card, but the challenge is open, says Christian leader

Tensions are running high and the outcome of the vote is uncertain. The division in the right opens a window of opportunity for the coalition led by former general Gantz. Whilst the incumbent prime minister has stressed the Iranian threat and Hezbollah, a corruption investigation overshadows his campaign. The Druze are unhappy, and Christians are politically irrelevant, as is the Palestinian question.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – Tensions are running high in Israel as uncertainty continues to hover over the outcome of next month’s election, this according to Sobhy Makhoul, of the Maronite Church of Jerusalem and director of the Christian Media Center.

The incumbent, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is stressing security to get a new mandate “by playing up the Iranian and Hezbollah danger,” Makhoul told AsiaNews.

When Israelis go to the polls to elect a new Knesset on 9 April, they will decide Netanyahu’s political fate. Meanwhile, he faces a trial for corruption and fraud on charges he describes as a witch hunt, all the while boasting that he is ready to prove his innocence in a court of law.

His party, the Likud, is closely monitoring the rise of its main rival, the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) alliance, led by former general Benny Gantz, against a backdrop that includes the Palestinian question and growing social problems.

In a recent move, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected the candidacy of Michael Ben-Ari, leader of the radical right-wing Otzma Yehudit party because of its anti-Arab ideology. Conversely, it allowed Ofer Cassif and the Arab-led list Balad-Ra’am to run.

According to some polls, the ruling Likud is lagging behind its main rival, which are trying to end Netanyahu’s ten-year right-wing rule.

Surveys by Channel 12 and 13 indicate that the block formed by centrist Yesh Atid and Israel Resilience party could win 36 seats (out of a total of 120) whilst the Likud would take 26 to 30. To form a government, 61 seats are needed.

"Against Netanyahu, the Blue and White alliance brings together different groups from the centre and the centre-left,” said Makhoul.

For his part, the incumbent prime minister has to deal with the loss of two ministers, including the Justice minister, who accuse him of being too "soft" towards the Palestinians.

Divisions within the right could "play in favour" of Gantz who can benefit from "the support of all moderates", but the "race is still open and the outcome uncertain".

Netanyahu "has responded forcefully, brushing off the allegations of corruption. He has tried to defend his position, stating that the charges are not true."

A possible corruption trial "is one of the topics of the electoral campaign", but "it will not be decisive" since he will be questioned only after the vote. "As he keeps repeating: He is under investigation, but has not been indicted". The matter will come out fully "only later. This is why it is an element, among many, but not a decisive factor.”

Netanyahu also faces the hostility of Israeli Arabs, in particular the Druze, who, "despite 70 years of loyalty to the country, have been relegated to second-class status by a new law that defines Israel as a nation-state” of the Jewish people.

That is why, he "is playing the external danger card, stressing the threat represented by Iran and the Lebanese Shia movement Hezbollah. In reality the situation at the border is fairly quiet, but he tries to provoke, to further the perception of danger and fear."

According to the Christian leader, the Palestinian question has dropped below the radar. No one is "talking about it" and "Gaza is a marginal issue”.

The economic situation is "on the whole positive. Israel is doing well thanks to high employment, tourism and pilgrimages,” and this “could work in favour of the incumbent prime minister."

However, the scale could be tipped by "the religious camp, which appears to be oriented towards Netanyahu, whilst the Arab front, to which Christians look, is split into two by internal divisions and rivalries".