Israelis are voting Tuesday in an unprecedented repeat election that will decide whether Benjamin Netanyahu stays in power despite a likely indictment on corruption charges.
Netanyahu, the longest-serving leader in Israeli history, is seeking a fourth consecutive term in office and fifth overall. But he faces a stiff challenge from retired military chief Benny Gantz, whose centrist Blue and White Party is running even with Netanyahu’s Likud.
Both parties could struggle to form a majority coalition with smaller allies, though, forcing them into a potential unity government.
Netanyahu has tried to portray himself as a statesman who is uniquely qualified to continue as prime minister through challenging times. Gantz has tried to paint Netanyahu as divisive and scandal-plagued, offering himself as a calming influence and an honest alternative.
After casting his ballot in Jerusalem, Netanyahu predicted the vote would be “very close.”
“It’s not in the bag. But if you go [vote], we will win,” Netanyahu blared through a megaphone to shoppers at a Jerusalem market, after stopping at other Likud strongholds in the city.
Voting in his hometown of Rosh Haayin in central Israel, Gantz urged all Israelis to hope. “We will bring hope, we will bring change, without corruption, without extremism.”
Tuesday’s vote marks their second showdown of the year after drawing even in the previous election in April.
Netanyahu appeared poised to remain in office at the time, with his traditional allies of nationalist and ultra-religious Jewish parties controlling a parliamentary majority.
But Avigdor Lieberman, his mercurial ally-turned-rival, refused to join the new coalition, citing excessive influence it granted the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. Without a parliamentary majority, Netanyahu dissolved parliament and called a new election.
Opinion polls have forecast similar results this time around, potentially putting Lieberman in the role of kingmaker.
Netanyahu aims to secure a narrow 61-seat majority in parliament with his hard-line religious and nationalist allies who are expected to approve legislation that would grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution.
Israel’s attorney general has recommended pressing criminal charges against Netanyahu in three separate corruption cases, pending a long delayed pretrial hearing scheduled next month.
Emphasis on voter turnout
Turnout has emerged as a key element for this election day, a national holiday aimed at encouraging participation. In April, turnout was about 69 per cent, slightly below the 72 per cent figure in a 2015 election.
As of 2 p.m., Israel’s central election committee said 36.5 per cent of eligible voters had cast their ballots. It marked a slight increase over the figure at the same time in April.
Michal Davis, who voted in Jerusalem, told CBC News she was voting for Gantz but “with a broken heart” as she normally prefers the centre-left Labor Party.
“We want a different face for our country,” Davis said. “[Netanyahu] tried to divide us. And for me this is a crime.
“To divide the religious and non-religious for me, [it’s] devastating.”
Facebook, meanwhile, penalized a chat bot on Netanyahu’s page because it violated a law prohibiting the publication of public opinion polls in the days leading up to an election.
It was the second time in less than a week that Facebook has taken action against Netanyahu’s page, which uses an automated chat function to communicate with followers. Last week, it was over a violation of the social network’s hate speech policy.
In a statement Tuesday, Facebook said it had suspended the bot “for violating local law” until polling stations close later in the day.
In a video posted to Facebook, Netanyahu called the step “disproportional” and “unjust,” claiming his Likud party was being targeted by the country’s election commission.
Lieberman key once again
After voting Tuesday, Lieberman reiterated his promise to force a unity government between Likud and Blue and White. He vowed there wouldn’t be a third round of elections, and said the parties would have to deal with any “constellation” that emerges from this vote.
The performance by the Soviet-born politician’s Yisrael Beitenu Party is just one of the factors that could determine Netanyahu’s future. Several small parties are fighting to squeak past the minimum 3.25 per cent threshold for entering parliament. The performances of these parties could make or break Netanyahu’s ability to form a coalition. Heavier turnout by Arab voters, many of whom stayed home in April, could hurt Netanyahu.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. local time (midnight ET) Tuesday, with exit polls expected at the end of the voting day at 10 p.m. (3 p.m. ET) and official results projected to come in overnight.
That’s when the real jockeying may get underway, with attention shifting to President Reuven Rivlin, who is responsible for choosing a candidate for prime minister.
He is supposed to select the leader he believes has the best chance of putting together a stable coalition. The honour usually goes to the head of the largest party, but not necessarily. Just as important is the number of lawmakers outside his own party who recommend him to the president.
Rivlin’s selection will then have up to six weeks to form a coalition.
Arabs urged to vote in large numbers
Heavier turnout by Arab voters, many of whom stayed home in April, could hurt Netanyahu. After casting his ballot, the leader of the main Arab faction in parliament, Ayman Odeh, said Netanyahu was “obsessive” in his incitement toward Arabs. He said his constituents “must be first-class voters on the way to becoming first-class citizens.”
Odeh cast his ballot on Tuesday in the northern city of Haifa and urged his fellow Arab citizens to vote in large numbers. He called Netanyahu “an obsessive prime minister who is inciting against us.”
Netanyahu has alleged fraud in Arab voting areas and has unsuccessfully pushed for legislation to place cameras in polling stations on election day. He also has accused his opponents of conspiring with Arab politicians to “steal” the election.
Turnout in the minority Arab sector was just below 50 per cent in April. Many Arab voters boycotted the vote. Odeh has banded the various Arab parties together in a bid to boost turnout.
Aron Shaviv, who managed Netanyahu’s 2015 re-election campaign, said Netanyahu believed “there’s no such thing as bad coverage.” But he thought his former boss may be making a mistake by appealing so heavily to hard-liners and giving up on moderate voters.
“He’s turned people off, playing the right-left polarization as far as he possibly can.”
A centrepiece of his eleventh-hour agenda has been the pledge to extend Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank and to annex all the Jewish settlements there, something Netanyahu has refrained from doing during his decade-plus in power because of the far-reaching diplomatic repercussions.
His proposal sparked a cascade of international condemnation, including from Europe and Saudi Arabia, an influential Arab country that has quiet, unofficial ties with Israel. The U.S., however, had a muted reaction, suggesting Netanyahu co-ordinated his plan with the Americans ahead of time.
Netanyahu has also been emphasizing his close ties to U.S. President Donald Trump and the prospect of a defence pact between their countries shortly after the election.