JERUSALEM, (AP) – Benjamin Netanyahu, the front-runner in polls ahead of Israel’s election this week, declared Sunday he would not give up the strategic Golan Heights for peace with Syria, an apparent attempt to toughen his right-wing credentials after a last-minute charge by a hardline party.
Israelis go to the polls Tuesday after one of the calmest campaigns in the nation’s history, despite the vital issues facing Israel — war, peace, terrorism and economic recession. The electorate has appeared fatigued after Israel’s three-week offensive against Gaza’s Hamas rulers last month.
Netanyahu has been leading in the polls since shortly after the Feb. 10 election was called in November, but his lead has been shrinking in recent weeks as another hawkish party, Yisrael Beitenu, or “Israel is our home,” surges with its campaign against Israel’s minority Arab citizens.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war, after Syria gunners shelled northern Israeli villages for 19 years. Syria demands return of the territory as a prerequisite for peace, but many Israelis hesitate to give up such a strategic asset.
In moving further to the right, Netanyahu could be setting up a confrontation with the Obama administration if he becomes Israel’s leader. Netanyahu opposes talks on a peace treaty with the Palestinians and favors allowing Israeli settlements in the West Bank to expand, two points that are likely to clash with Washington policy.
Netanyahu’s Likud Party has been the mainstream voice of Israel’s right wing for decades, but the erosion in its support has led him to underline his hawkish positions in the final hours of campaigning.
With polls showing him holding a slim lead over Kadima, the present ruling party, and its candidate, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu traveled to the Golan Heights on Sunday to emphasize their policy differences.
While Livni has not ruled out returning the Golan Heights in exchange for full peace, and the third candidate for premier, Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Labor, offered the Syrians that deal when he was premier in 2000, Netanyahu insisted he would say no.
“The Golan will never be divided again, the Golan will never fall again, the Golan will remain in our hands,” he declared during his campaign stop there. Netanyahu and his backers consider the strategic value of the territory as more important than a peace treaty.
Netanyahu has carefully not criticized Yisrael Beitenu or its leader, Avigdor Lieberman, who was Netanyahu’s chief aide when he was premier from 1996-1999, hoping for a partnership after the election.
Lieberman’s main campaign plank is to force Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of Israel’s population, to swear loyalty to the Jewish state or relinquish their citizenship. Some polls show Lieberman’s party approaching 20 seats in the 120-seat parliament, trailing Likud and Kadima, polling less than 30 seats each, but well ahead of Labor, with about 15. Israelis vote for parties, not candidates.
His support could catapult him into a key role in the new government, giving him a large voice in peace moves and domestic policy as well.
However, polls are notoriously inaccurate in Israel. This time the pollsters’ task is even more difficult because the gaps among the parties are relatively small, turnout is expected to be the lowest in Israel’s history and a plethora of small parties could upset the equation.