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Behind Bulletproof Glass, Netanyahu Addresses Right-Wing Rally in Last-Ditch Bid to Win Over Voters

The crowd included die-hard “Likudniks” as well as thousands of supporters of far right nationalist-religious and settler parties.

by Harriet Salem
Mar 15 2015, 9:25pm

AP Photo/Oded Balilty

Thousands of people gathered in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on Sunday night in a show support for Israel's embattled right as the country braces for a neck-and-neck election on March 17th that could see voters choose a left-leaning government for the first time in six years. However, the event's attendance estimated at around 20,000 appeared to be below that of a leftist rally held the weekend before which attracted around 35,000 people.

Addressing the crowd from behind bulletproof glass the event's guest of honor incumbent Prime Minister and leader of the Likud party, Benjamin Netanyahu, drew heavily on the security rhetoric that has dominated his Likud party's electioneering. 

Taking to the platform to cheers and applause Netanyahu said Jerusalem was "united" and promised the sympathetic audience that Israel would continue building in the holy city. "We don't withdraw even when pressured…. We preserve a unified Jerusalem. We're building in Jerusalem. That is not the way of the left," he said to cheers and applause.

The crowd included die-hard "Likudniks" as well as thousands of supporters of far right nationalist-religious and settler parties, many of whom were reportedly bused in on subsidized transport from settlements beyond 1967 lines, deemed illegal under international law. Homemade signs and banners at the event included "Only Bibi. Only Likud. Only Israel" and "Our country and proud."

The prime minister, renowned as a charismatic public speaker, also took the opportunity to reiterate allegations that leftist Israelis were plotting with foreign financers to usurp him from power. 

"A fortune was funneled from abroad to the left-wing organization V15, with one goal, to replace the government led by me with a government led by Tzipi and Bougie [leaders of the center-left Zionist Union coalition] supported by the joint Arab party," Netanyahu said. 

At the mention of V15, an organization that have speared a so-called "Anyone but Bibi" campaign against the prime minister in the build up to the election, the crowd broke into boos.

Many in the crowd expressed hope that the election would win Netanyahu a fourth term as prime minister, even if they were planning on voting for other right-wing parties.

"Netanyahu is the only one who can keep our land united. Without him we are worried there will be a second Holocaust. We are here because we care about the security situation," 56 year-old Hannah Atsmon, from Kokhav Ya'ir, who attended the rally with her two daughters decked out in Likud t-shirts told VICE News.

"Bibi is the only one who can represent the security interests of Israel internationally," 60-year-old Joseph told VICE News. A French immigrant who immigrated to Israel ten years ago and attended the rally with his wife, Joseph said they both planned to vote for Naftalie Bennett's Jewish Home party in the anticipation it would form a coalition with Likud. "It better represents our political views, but we trust Bibi as a leader of the government," he said.

Yet despite the attendees enthusiasm for the prime minister, the showing at Sunday night's event, which appeared to be below last week's leftist rally, will likely be a disappointment to Netanyahu who desperately needs to garner support ahead of Tuesday's election.

The last polls before voting day, released on Friday, showed his Likud party slipping further down approval ratings with its biggest rival, the center-left Zionist Union block, leading by between two and five seats.

The poor showing in the eleventh-hour polls appears to have panicked Netanyahu. During the past week the prime minister, who normally privileges international media outlets with his rare interviews, has appeared on Israeli television and radio stations more times than his previous six years in office combined.

Israel's electoral system is based on coalition building, a task which will be easier for Likud than the leftist Zionist Union, which will have a hard time  joining with the cluster of nationalist, religious and far-right parties expected to win seats in the election. 

But with up to 20 percent of voters still undecided the race is incredibly tight. 

"Every mandate counts in this contest," Rafi Smith, Director of Smith Consultancy polling agency told VICE News. "If Likud takes 20 or less seats it will be perceived as a loss, but two or three more seats and they can make a coalition. The gap between the two major parties is very close. So this is a real numbers game. It's still all to play for."

Israel's election campaigning laws prohibit additional polls being published before Tuesday's election, therefore making it "impossible" to know if Sunday's rally encourages more left and centrist or right-wing voters to turn out, the pollster added.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem