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Netanyahu is giving more gifts to the right-wing in his fight to hold power

With Israel's third election in less than a year upcoming, Benjamin Netanyahu is turning to desperate measures to avoid going to jail.

Analysis | Middle East

On March 2, Israelis will go to the polls for the third time in a year to try to elect a prime minister and a new Knesset. They are frustrated and exhausted from the ongoing electoral campaign, the repeated trips to the polls and the repeated unresolved outcomes. But unless the polls are drastically mistaken and have been since the last election in September, there’s every reason to believe that there will be another deadlock, resulting in a fourth election.

The only realistic chance for the impasse to break this time is for incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to find a way to cobble together a majority coalition. His opponent, former Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces Benny Gantz, has no credible path to the prime minister’s office.

Netanyahu’s stake in the race goes beyond retaining the prime minister’s office, as he is under indictment for fraud and breach of public trust, and is facing prison unless he can use his position as prime minister to shield himself from accountability. His trial is due to start shortly after the election.

Netanyahu is working tirelessly for every electoral edge. His recent overtures to Morocco and Sudan were an attempt to bolster his image as the leader who can improve Israel’s ties to the rest of the world without granting the Palestinians their rights and freedom. Now he’s moving to solidify his support among the settler movement, which has recently voiced some frustration with him. He’s making some very significant decisions with long-term ramifications, and all for his re-election bid.

A Tangled Electoral Field

For Gantz, only a massive shift in the Israeli electorate can open up even a narrow path to a governing coalition for his Blue and White party. An optimistic forecast for Blue and White, combined with the coalition of center-left parties, Labor, Gesher, and Meretz, is 45 seats out of the 120 in the Knesset. The Joint List — the coalition of non- or anti-Zionist parties, mostly representing Israel’s Palestinian minority — might get as many as 14 seats. But Gantz has ruled out inviting the Joint List into the government, opting instead to request that they support it “from the outside,” meaning they wouldn’t be part of the governing coalition, but pledging to support it in any no-confidence votes. Even if the Joint List would agree to such an arrangement — and it’s not clear that all the parties on the list would — that would still leave Gantz at least two seats short of a majority, probably more.

The kingmaker is still Avigdor Liberman, who has spent many years drifting between support for Netanyahu and shrill opposition to him. Liberman dictated terms in the first two elections, demanding a government of national unity between Netanyahu and Gantz, after failing to use his leverage to convince Likud to replace Netanyahu at the head of their party. Now, he is saying that he won’t allow another impasse and a fourth election, but he’s also saying he won’t sit in a government that has the support of the Joint List. That eliminates any possibility of him joining Gantz. He says he will only join with ultra-orthodox parties if they agree to his agenda, which features replacing religious authorities in Israel with secular ones. That’s obviously a non-starter for the ultra-orthodox parties. And without them, it is unlikely, although not entirely impossible, that Netanyahu can get the 61 seats he needs, even with Liberman.

On Thursday, Liberman told Israel’s Walla News that Netanyahu had reached “the end of his road,” but he left himself some wiggle room. Netanyahu will welcome him no matter what, Liberman has said. because without him, Netanyau can’t get a majority. And if Liberman decides to join despite the ultra-orthodox being in the government too, Liberman can say he relented in his demands from the Haredim “for the good of the country.” Liberman is trying to leave his options open, but he must know that if he causes a fourth election, he risks angering his own base.

Netanyahu is surveying the field and realizing that it is too unpredictable for him. He has also been grappling with Donald Trump and Jared Kushner’s “Deal of the Century,” which was supposed to bolster his chances but ended up causing problems. Trump’s deal is a green light for Israeli annexation of massive chunks of the West Bank, but Trump and Kushner wanted Netanyahu to hold off on annexing territory for a while. Since the plan called the scattered pieces of land left to the Palestinians a “state,” the settler movement— predictably but still incredibly— criticized the deal. When Netanyahu bowed to Trump’s wishes and postponed annexation, he feared losing the support he needed from the far right. So he came up with a gift.

The Gift of Givat Hamatos

In 2014, the Israeli government gave final approval to the plan to build a new settlement on East Jerusalem’s southern border. Givat Hamatos would be built right next to the settlement of Gilo and would completely seal off the Palestinian towns of Beit Tzafafa and Shurafat from the rest of the West Bank, hemming them in between Gilo and Jerusalem. It would also close the space between Gilo and the settlement of Har Homa. All of this would effectively cut East Jerusalem off from the southern and much of the central West Bank. In effect, Jerusalem would be physically separated from most of the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, not just by a wall or checkpoints, but by a series of small-town settlements. That’s a much less permeable, much more permanent barrier.

The United States and European Union voiced strong objections to the plan, and actual construction never began. It was understood that Netanyahu had frozen the planned construction in deference to the pressure, and the Americans and Europeans were content to allow him to do so without saying anything about it in public.

On Thursday, Netanyahu announced that the construction of Givat Hamatos would finally begin. He also said Israel would expand Har Homa, closing the gap between that settlement and Givat Hamatos. Netanyahu could now demonstrate measurable, physical success in uniting Jerusalem in a physical and permanent way under exclusive Israeli rule. The Trump administration may have been able to forestall annexation for a few months, but a united, Israeli Jerusalem was an explicit feature of the so-called “Deal of the Century.” Trump is unlikely to object to Netanyahu actualizing it.

In 2017, Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann wrote, “Givat Hamatos is not just another detrimental settlement; it is a game-changer.” He was right. And Netanyahu is doing it just to score some electoral points. It’s not the only measure he’s taking; he even tried to stump for some Palestinian votes by promising to oppose the provision in the Trump plan that would transfer some Palestinian Israeli towns to Palestinian sovereignty, which was not likely to be executed anyway.

But these are momentous decisions. They will permanently cripple any remote chance for diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians, and is a major blow to Palestinian rights and their connection to Jerusalem. Such decisions need to be based on more than one man’s political and legal concerns.

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