JERUSALEM » Under pressure on the eve of a surprisingly close election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Monday doubled down on his appeal to right-wing voters, declaring definitively that if he was returned to office he would never establish a Palestinian state.
The statement reversed Netanyahu’s endorsement of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a 2009 speech and confirmed many world leaders’ suspicions that he was never really serious about peace negotiations. If he manages to eke out a fourth term, the new stance would further fray Netanyahu’s ruinous relationship with the Obama administration and heighten tension with European countries frustrated with the stalled peace process.
"I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel," he said in a video interview published on NRG, an Israeli news site that leans right. "There is a real threat here that a left-wing government will join the international community and follow its orders."
Netanyahu’s chief challenger, Isaac Herzog of the center-left Zionist Union, backs the two-state solution and has promised to try to restart talks with the Palestinians, though he has warned an agreement may not be possible. He has, however, made Netanyahu’s alienation of allies, especially Washington, a prime campaign point, and said Israel’s international isolation is itself a security threat.
With his conservative Likud Party trailing the Zionist Union in the last pre-election polls, Netanyahu has ratcheted up his rhetoric in a panicky blitz of interviews and campaign stops. He accuses rivals of colluding with Arabs and moneyed antagonists in a global conspiracy to oust him. He has also belatedly begun to address the pocketbook questions that polls suggest will drive most people’s votes.
But in many corners, these efforts and the Palestinian flip-flop only underscore a long-standing critique: that Netanyahu, 65, who led Israel for three years in the 1990s and returned to the premiership in 2009, places staying in power above all else.
"A lot of people on the right wing are still right wing, they are just tired of him specifically, it’s very, very personal," said Tal Schneider, a political blogger. "Israelis, they perceive themselves as creative, as nonconformists, they hate the feeling of stagnation, of seeing themselves as counting down to another war. This vacuum, this feeling of forever status quo, this is the Bibi fatigue."