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Turnout tops corruption as factor in Israel vote

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Tel Aviv (AFP)

A prime minister who has become the first head of government in the country's history to be indicted in office may appear ripe for electoral defeat.

But according to final polls ahead of Israel's general election on Monday, Benjamin Netanyahu's support has held steady since the last vote in September, despite the prime minister having been formally charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust last month.

Ex-military chief Benny Gantz, the main challenger Blue and White alliance leader, has tried to make Netanyahu's upcoming trial a central issue in his campaign, warning Israelis that the premier's legal woes will distract him from the national interest.

But that message may have failed to influence voters, with both Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and Blue and White projected to fall short of forming a government -- the same result as inconclusive April and September polls.

At Gantz's closing rally in Tel Aviv, his focus was squarely on turnout, as he urged the crowd to broadcast on Facebook live, hoping to expand the network of people tuned into his speech.

"Get out and vote!" the Blue and White leader said.

- 'Uncomfortable' with graft -

Research shows that Israeli voters, including Netanyahu supporters, care about the criminal allegations against him, said the president of the Israeli Democracy Institute think-tank, Yohanan Plesner.

"The numbers indicate that about a third of those who self-identify as right-wing voters are very uncomfortable, or think it is impossible, for someone to continue to serve as a prime minister after being indicted," Plesner told AFP.

But that "does not necessarily mean that they are going to change their voting patterns," he added, explaining that personal affinity for the prime minister and his policies may prove paramount.

Netanyahu will stand trial from March 17 on changes of receiving improper gifts and offering a media mogul lucrative regulatory changes in exchange for favourable coverage.

Plesner explained that 70 percent of Likud supporters have simply rejected the indictments as baseless and "politically motivated."

That position is "ludicrous," he said, but noted that Netanyahu had skillfully managed to persuade some that he was engaged in legitimate political "wheeling and dealing," not corruption.

At the Gantz rally in Tel Aviv, long-time Netanyahu supporter Avi Regev explained why he had decided to switch sides and become a Blue and White activist.

"Bibi was a wonderful prime minister," said Regev, using the premier's nickname.

But, Regev argued, Netanyahu had pivoted from being focused on Israel's priorities to being consumed by his personal concerns, now including his corruption trial.

"Today, it's more, 'Is it good for Bibi or not?' This I don't like," said Regev.

- Turnout -

If polls are accurate and few voters have broken with the prime minister over the indictments, most experts agree that turnout will be decisive on Monday.

Turnout unexpectedly increased 1.5 percent to 70 percent in September compared to April, defying predictions that apathy would compel some to stay home.

Officials have warned that fears of new coronavirus transmission in densely packed polling stations could impact voter participation.

Israel now has seven confirmed cases of COVID-19 with thousands of others in home-quarantine.

Kal Oppenheimer, who is 43 and works in digital marketing, accused Likud of seeking to spread virus concerns in Tel Aviv, a Blue and White stronghold, to dampen turnout.

"I think some people will be afraid (to vote)," he said.

For Ben Caspit, a political columnist with the Maariv newspaper, staying home is not an option for those seeking to end Netanyahu's record tenure in office.

"This is the moment of truth, we will have no other opportunity, it is now or never: either we vote or we lose the country," he wrote on Sunday.

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