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Under threat of indictment, Netanyahu enters campaign's final weeks

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a tough challenge from a centrist coalition at April 9 polls
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a tough challenge from a centrist coalition at April 9 polls AFP
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Jerusalem (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads into the crucial final weeks of his re-election campaign for April 9 polls fighting for his political life while under threat of indictment for corruption.

With a month to go, the longtime prime minister has found himself locked in a close battle with a centrist political alliance headed by former military chief of staff Benny Gantz and ex-finance minister Yair Lapid.

Their decision last month to team up against Netanyahu has changed the momentum of a race the premier had previously been expected to win, a victory that would put him on track to become the longest-serving prime minister in Israel's history.

Opinion polls have since shown Netanyahu's right-wing Likud trailing the Blue and White alliance, named for the colours of the Israeli flag, and the prime minister's legal troubles have only further helped his opponents.

Under those polls, the alliance would still fall far short of an outright majority, and it is unclear whether it would be able to assemble enough parties to form a coalition.

Further fluctuations are likely in store and many analysts predict a close race in which post-election negotiations may be key.

The vote will be seen in large part as a referendum on Netanyahu, who has towered over Israeli politics for years, but Gantz's message of wanting to heal divisions also seems to have resonated.

His alliance's centrist positions and security credentials -- bolstered by the involvement of three former military chiefs of staff -- have helped beat back Netanyahu's attempts to label it "weak" and leftist.

- 'Prefer our way' -

"In a way, I think what they're doing will help us," Blue and White candidate Ofer Shelah told AFP, referring to Netanyahu's harshly negative campaign.

"Probably we won't get to the Likud core base, but we believe many people will prefer our way."

Eli Hazan, Likud's foreign affairs director, said the campaign would continue to try to brand Gantz's alliance as "leftist" while highlighting Israel's economic growth and other achievements under Netanyahu.

"We are going to continue with it because that's the truth," he told AFP of the "leftist" claims.

"We are going to emphasise our political and economic achievements. No doubt about it. This is what we have to offer to the public."

Seeking to prevent any further loss of ground, Netanyahu has hit back hard at the attorney general's February 28 announcement that he intends to indict the premier for bribery pending a hearing.

Netanyahu's rhetoric castigating the investigations as a political plot to bring him down have led to criticism, though it may also help motivate his supporters and boost turnout.

The 69-year-old known for his sharp political instincts clearly senses his career is at risk, and he has tacked further to the right.

In a widely condemned move, he brokered a deal aimed at making it easier for candidates from an extreme-right party many view as racist to enter parliament, hoping to secure as many right-wing seats as possible.

He has also enlisted the support of US President Donald Trump, tweeting a video of a man he calls his "friend" praising Netanyahu's leadership.

- Losing the centre-right? -

The campaign has provided a glimpse of Israeli politics' move to the right.

For much of the public, "leftist" means significant concessions to the Palestinians, and many have grown weary of such calls and see little hope in a two-state solution.

Blue and White's campaign platform speaks of separating from the Palestinians, but does not specifically mention a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu often seeks to avoid talking about the Palestinians apart from trying to burnish his reputation as Israel's "Mr. Security", the source of much of his popularity.

He has said in recent months he wants the Palestinians to govern themselves without specifying whether that would mean an independent Palestinian state or a lesser form of autonomy.

Prominent members of his current governing coalition, seen as the most right-wing ever in Israel, openly oppose a Palestinian state and advocate annexing much of the occupied West Bank.

Israel's Labour party, which sealed the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians when it was in power in the 1990s, has fallen far out of favour among voters.

Security is always a major issue in a country that has fought repeated wars since its 1948 founding, and Netanyahu has been highlighting Israel's strikes against its main enemy Iran in neighbouring Syria.

But Israeli voters' decisions often come down to candidates' personalities -- whether they like them and see them as strong leaders.

What could decide the race is if Netanyahu's negative campaigning and legal troubles change centre-right voters' opinions of him, said Gideon Rahat of Hebrew University and the Israel Democracy Institute.

"If he really loses the soft right, the moderate right, his strategy has failed," he said.

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