Netanyahu’s fate on the line in tight Israeli election

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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli voters decided yesterday whether to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu another term in office in a tight election that has become a referendum on his decade in power.

Clouded by looming corruption indictments, Netanyahu is seeking a fourth-consecutive term and a fifth overall, which would make him Israel’s longest-serving leader, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion.

He faced a stiff challenge from retired military chief Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party has inched ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud in polls. Netanyahu still appears to have the best chance of forming a coalition, though, with a smattering of small nationalist parties backing him.

Gantz voted in his hometown of Rosh Haayin in central Israel alongside his wife, Revital, urging Israelis to “take responsibility” for their democracy.

“Go to vote. Choose whoever you believe in. Respect each other and let us all wake up for a new dawn, a new history,” he said.

A subdued Netanyahu cast his ballot in Jerusalem, alongside his wife Sara, and called voting a “sacred act”.

His tone contrasted with his frantic calls in recent days for supporters to turn out. Netanyahu has warned against complacency and said his Likud party would lose if overall turnout is low. On social media, Netanyahu renewed accusations that his opponents were conspiring with the country’s Arab parties to topple him.

Arab voters appeared poised to play a role in the outcome — by not voting. Many Arabs, accusing Netanyahu of incitement, were boycotting the election.

An hour before polls closed, Arab turnout was at 46 per cent — well below the 61 per cent turnout nationwide — and Arab political and religious leaders made a last-minute appeal for their followers to vote. Politician Ayman Odeh took to Facebook live, while religious leaders used mosque loudspeakers to urge people to vote. A low turnout will reduce Arab representation in parliament and likely boost the Likud and its hard-line allies.

The election has emerged as a referendum on the 69-year-old prime minister and his 13 years in power, with the existential questions facing Israel rarely being discussed in the campaign.

Netanyahu has been the dominant force in Israeli politics and its best-known face for two decades. His campaign has focused heavily on his friendship with President Donald Trump and his success in cultivating new allies, such as China, India and Brazil.

But corruption scandals have created some voter fatigue, and in recent days Netanyahu has vowed to annex Jewish West Bank settlements if re-elected — a prospect that could doom already-slim hopes of establishing a Palestinians state alongside Israel, which he has wavered on.

“It’s about time for a change,” said Barry Rifkin, a Jerusalem resident.

Some 40 parties are running, with no more than a dozen expected to receive the required 3.25 per cent support to make it into parliament.

Official results will begin streaming in early today but it may take far longer for a final verdict, given Israel’s fragmented politics.

As many as a half-dozen parties are teetering on the threshold for entering the Knesset, or parliament. A failure by any of these to get in 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.

Netanyahu and 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.

Netanyahu appears to have the edge, thanks to the larger number of religious and nationalist parties that are his traditional allies.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin could play an important role. Though his post is largely ceremonial, 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, Netanyahu has veered to the right and embarked on a media blitz in which he portrayed himself as the underdog, frantically warning that “the right wing government is in danger”.

As the day wore on yesterday, Netanyahu delivered increasingly impassioned pleas for support via Facebook.

In videos, he repeated his signature warning that if supporters failed to vote for Likud, they’d wake up to a “leftist” government led by Gantz. Netanyahu said such a scenario is backed by the centrist party’s “secret deal” with Arab factions.

His nationalist allies, however, see his tactics as an attempt to siphon seats from them to bolster the Likud. Netanyahu used a similar strategy in 2015, warning on election day that “droves” of Arab voters were turning out. The scare tactics were seen as helping him seal a come-from-behind victory.

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