Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv March 29, 2019

The last time Benjamin Netanyahu faced such a tight election, he rallied supporters with a late warning that “Arab voters are heading to the polls in droves” and could unseat his rightwing government. The Israeli prime minister expressed regret for the remark, but only after his Likud party had won the 2015 poll.

This time, ahead of another close battle for re-election, Mr Netanyahu has gone even further, and has shown no sign of apologising.

In the past few weeks, he has ratcheted up the anti-Arab rhetoric by asserting that Israel is for Jews alone, telling the Israeli Arabs who make up a fifth of the population that they are free to choose from 22 others countries in the region. “Israel is the national state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people,” he told reporters this month.

He has warned that the opposition would invite Arabs into government if they win the vote, weakening Israel’s Jewish roots. He has also ushered an explicitly anti-Arab party, Jewish Power, under the respectability of his electoral umbrella, papering over the once-shunned group’s racist agenda by warning of the dangers of any government but his. Jewish Power, or Otzma Yehudit, believes Israeli Arabs should be stripped of some of their democratic rights and encouraged to leave the country.

“Netanyahu has long advocated the same policies being put forward by the ultra-right, including Jewish Power,” said Diana Buttu, an Arab-Israeli lawyer who has worked with Israeli and Palestinian politicians. “It was just a matter of time before he formed such an alliance.”

If the polls are to be believed, the prime minister’s strategy is working. In the days immediately after Israel’s attorney-general said he intended to indict Mr Netanyahu for corruption, Likud lost ground to the centrist Blue and White party led by Benny Gantz, a former head of the Israeli army. But a survey this week showed Likud and Mr Gantz’s party nearly level ahead of the April 9 vote.

But Mr Netanyahu’s sharpened language and smearing of Arab politicians, whom he describes as fifth columnists intent on destroying Israel, has alarmed even allies. AIPAC, which lobbies for pro-Israel policies in Washington, has described Jewish Power, which could enter the Knesset for the first time as part of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition, as “racist and reprehensible”

The Anti-Defamation League, an organisation that normally campaigns against anti-Semitism, said: “This anti-Arab rhetoric is a deeply troubling trend that, if it continues, could undermine Israel’s vibrant democracy. Stereotyping and stigmatising Israeli Arabs is unacceptable and immoral.”

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