Israeli Election 2019: Polls open as Netanyahu-Gantz run-off in focus
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Israeli Election 2019: Polls open as Netanyahu-Gantz run-off in focus

Netanyahu still appears to have the best chance of forming a coalition, with a smattering of small nationalist parties backing him, as ex-IDF general challenges incumbent PM

Benny Gantz votes in the election. 
(Credit: Sraya Diamant, Blue and White campaign)
Benny Gantz votes in the election. (Credit: Sraya Diamant, Blue and White campaign)

Voting has begun in the Israeli elections as the country decides whether longtime prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains in power.

Polling stations opened on Tuesday morning with exit polls expected at the end of the voting day at 10pm (8pm BST). Official results are expected to come in overnight.

Clouded by a series of looming corruption indictments, Mr Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term in office.

It would make him Israel’s longest-ever serving leader, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion.

He faces a stiff challenge from retired military chief Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party has inched ahead of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud in polls.

Mr Netanyahu still appears to have the best chance of forming a coalition, with a smattering of small nationalist parties backing him.

The election has emerged as a referendum on his 13 years overall in power, with the existential questions facing Israel rarely being discussed in the campaign.

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The 69-year-old prime minister has been the dominant force in Israeli politics for the past two decades.

However, his various corruption scandals have created some voter fatigue, and in recent days he has vowed to annex Jewish West Bank settlements if re-elected – a prospect that could doom the already slim hopes of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which Mr Netanyahu has previously wavered on.

Some 6.4 million eligible voters will be able to cast their ballots at more than 10,000 stations. Some 40 parties are running, but no more than a dozen are expected to make it into parliament. Election day in Israel is a national holiday, with turnout expected to be high in good weather.

Official results will begin streaming in early on Wednesday, but it may take far longer for a final verdict to come through, given the fragmented state of Israeli politics.

As many as half a dozen parties are teetering along the threshold for entering the Knesset, or parliament.

A failure by any of these parties to get the required 3.25% of total votes cast could have a dramatic impact on who ultimately forms the next coalition.

The Israeli government needs a parliamentary majority to rule, and since no party has ever earned more than half of the 120 seats in the Knesset, a coalition is required.

Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz have ruled out sitting together in government, so the next prime minister will likely come down to how many supporters each candidate can recruit.

Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, could play an important role. Though largely a ceremonial post, the president is responsible for choosing the candidate with the best chance of building a stable coalition government as prime minister.

In the campaign’s final days, Mr Netanyahu has veered to the right and embarked on a media campaign in which he portrays himself as the underdog, and frantically warns that “the right-wing government is in danger”.

His nationalist allies, however, see the move as a repeat of his 2015 election tactic to draw away their voters as he did four years ago when on election day, he warned of Arabs turning out in “droves”. The scare tactics were seen as helping him seal victory.

Arab turnout will be a major issue this time as well. Mr Netanyahu’s campaign against Arab politicians, together with the new alliance with anti-Arab extremists and the passage of last year’s contentious nation-state law, which enshrined Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people alone, have deepened calls for a ballot boycott in Arab communities.

But some hope these blows will have the opposite effect, fuelling enough frustration to drive up the Arab participation rate, which is typically lower than that of Israeli Jews. A big Arab turnout could push smaller right-wing parties into the margins and even threaten Mr Netanyahu’s long rule.

The Palestinian issue has been largely sidelined in the election campaign that has been long on scandal and short on substance. But in a reminder, the military said it imposed a 24-hour closure on the West Bank and Gaza throughout election day, based on its security assessments.

Even if he is re-elected, Mr Netanyahu could have a difficult time governing. Some of his allies have indicated they will no longer back him if formal charges are filed.

Israel’s attorney general has recommended indicting him on bribery and breach of trust charges in three separate cases. Rivals have also begun to question a deal in which Mr Netanyahu reportedly earned four million dollars (£3 million) on a German submarine sale to Egypt by owning shares in one of the German manufacturer’s suppliers.

Mr Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and claims the accusations are part of a liberal media’s orchestrated witch hunt against him.

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