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In close poll, Netanyahu invokes ‘us versus them’

As Israel approaches the April 9 general election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is again resorting to right-wing populism that critics say amounts to the demonisation of Arab Israelis and others to appeal to his support base.

Some analysts expect more to come in the campaign’s final days as Mr. Netanyahu fights a close election under the threat of indictment for corruption.

“What you’re probably going to see is him exacerbating the polarisation — us versus them,” said Reuven Hazan, political science Professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. “He realises that this is a battle for his survival.”

On election day in 2015, Mr. Netanyahu infamously warned that Arab voters were going to the polls “in droves” — and, according to state investigators, made sure a news website featured the video.

This year, he has continually sought to convince voters that his main opponent, former military chief Benny Gantz, would ally with Arab political parties. As part of that argument, he has used the catchphrase that the election is a choice between “Bibi or Tibi” — using his own nickname and referring to prominent Israeli Arab politician Ahmad Tibi, a staunch anti-Zionist.

Sawsan Zaher, deputy director general of Adalah, a legal centre for Israel’s Arab minority, said the rhetoric amounted to “not only racism, but even intentional racism”. “And what will this incitement lead to on the ground and on the streets against Arabs?” Mr. Zaher asked. Israeli Arabs account for some 17.5% of the country’s population.

Some analysts say they see Mr. Netanyahu’s rhetoric less as expressions of his true beliefs than as bare-knuckled politics. Israeli politics has moved sharply to the right in recent years, with much of the electorate disillusioned by failed peace efforts with the Palestinians.

As one example of Mr. Netanyahu’s opportunism, analysts point to a deal he brokered with the extreme-right Jewish Power party which many see as racist to try to ease its way into parliament.

“His true stand is to keep his prime ministership and to get away from going to jail,” said Gideon Rahat of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank. “That’s his main motive.”

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