TEL AVIV -- In a last-ditch effort to drum up right-wing support in a tight Israeli election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Tuesday of a left-wing conspiracy to increase Arab turnout -- comments some critics called racist and divisive.
"The rule of the right is in danger," Netanyahu says in a video posted to Facebook just hours before polls closed. "Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot boxes. Left-wing NGOs bring them in buses."
"Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot boxes."'
The prime minister's chief rival, Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog, responded Tuesday on Facebook that "Netanyahu's panic and false statements in the last hours prove for the umpteenth time that the prime minister is hysterical, divisive and inflammatory." Shelly Yachimovich, another Zionist Union leader, slammed Netanyahu's warning as racist.
“No Western leader would dare utter such a racist comment," Yachimovich responded to a voter on Facebook. "Imagine a prime minister/president in any democracy who would warn that his rule is in jeopardy because, e.g., ‘Black voters are coming in droves to the polling stations’ ... Horrendous, isn't it?"
Throughout his campaign, Netanyahu has accused foreign governments of funding NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, to undermine his leadership. But in the last four days, the prime minister has moved even further to the right, culminating in a statement Monday that there would be no Palestinian state if he is reelected.
His declaration Tuesday about Arab voters is the latest in a series of eleventh-hour surprises that experts say worked in his favor to bring more right-wing votes to his party, but ironically boosted Arab turnout as well.
“He wants to get the right to have a higher percentage than the left and he uses the Arab vote as a kind of a threat,” said Dr. Mordechai Kedar, of Bar Ilan University’s Center for Strategic Studies. “If all the Arabs will vote, and half the Jews will vote, it means that the Arabs will double their power in the Knesset.”
Alan Elsner, the vice president for communications at J Street, told msnbc that Netanyahu's strategy may have helped his cause at the expense of other right-wing parties. But now the prime minister, if reelected, will have to deal with the consequences.
"Him suggesting that Arab citizens who have the right to vote are somehow a threat to Israel because they exercise their democratic right is outrageous," Elsner said. "He was obviously trying to scare his own supporters to go to the polls, but he did it in a disgusting, racist way."
"If he walks back from it, he's really going to enrage his right-wing supporters, and if he doesn't walk back from it, he's going to enrage the international community," he added. "Either way, neither constituency is going to believe him because he's shot his credibility."
Although the Israeli election remained too close to call earlier on Tuesday, according to preliminary exit polls, Netanyahu has already declared victory on Twitter, writing “Against all odds:a [sic] great victory for the Likud.” Later results showed Netanyahu gaining the upper hand Tuesday night, with The Jerusalem Post reporting Likud had won 30 seats to the Zionist Union’s 24.
But Netanyahu and his chief rival Herzog are both far short of a 61-seat majority. That means Netanyahu will have to stitch together another majority coalition of smaller parties to retain his role as prime minister. A critical swing vote could be former Likud politician Moshe Kahlon’s new Kulanu party, which has yet to make clear where it stands.
Whether or not the prime minister can form a majority coalition, Netanyahu’s busing comment Tuesday, combined with his declaration Monday that there would be no Palestinian state under his watch, may have led even more Arabs to the polls.
“The fact that a prime ministers says you need to be careful because the Arab citizens are voting, I think that helps us, that does make people want to go out and vote,” said Reut Mor, spokeswoman for the Joint (Arab) List, an Arab Israeli party which emerged in third place on Tuesday, according to preliminary polls.
The newly-formed party, which unified four major Arab Israeli parties, was already expected to drive higher turnout among Israel's 1.4 million Arab citizens before Netanyahu's rejection of a two-state solution, which may have galvanized even more Arabs to vote.
According to Manar Biny, a 22-year-old resident of the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Jaffa, Netanyahu's recent statements absolutely helped their cause.
"What he said definitely caused more Arabs to vote," she said on her way home from the polling station, where she cast her vote for the Joint (Arab) List.