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Netanyahu faces crisis in national election

JERUSALEM — 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.

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