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Netanyahu faces Gantz again as Israelis head to polls for the third time in a year

An Arab-Israeli girl casts her father's ballot for the parliamentary election at a poling station in the Bedouin town of Rahat near the southern Israeli city of Beersheba on March 2, 2020.
An Arab-Israeli girl casts her father's ballot for the parliamentary election at a poling station in the Bedouin town of Rahat near the southern Israeli city of Beersheba on March 2, 2020. © Hazem Bader, AFP

Israel is holding its third election in less than a year on Monday in a bid to end a long-running political deadlock, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing criminal indictment as he tries to fend off a challenge from main rival Benny Gantz.

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The campaign, which included tit-for-tat mudslinging between Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party and Gantz's centrist Blue and White party, was condemned by President Reuvin Rivlin as “awful and grubby”.

Voicing the feelings of many ballot-weary Israelis after nearly a year of political stalemate and a caretaker government, Rivlin said the Jewish state does not “deserve this never-ending instability”.

Election day is “normally a festive day”, he added.

“But the truth is that I don’t feel like celebrating. I only [feel] a sense of deep shame when I face you, my fellow citizens.”

The vote comes just two weeks before Netanyahu, the longest-serving premier in Israeli history, stands trial after being formally charged in January with bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

But final polls indicated that Netanyahu, the first Israeli prime minister ever indicted in office, had not lost support since inconclusive elections in April and September.

According to earlier projections, Netanyahu’s and Gantz’s parties would each win 33 seats in the 120-member Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Monday’s polls.

That result would be almost identical to the previous round, after which each leader tried and failed to form a government.

In separate television interviews on Saturday evening, Gantz and Netanyahu ripped into each other.

Netanyahu told private Channel 12 that his opponent, a decorated former head of Israel’s armed forces, was “not fit to be prime minister” of Israel.

“He is weak, he’s not a leader,” the incumbent said.

The same interviewer earlier asked Gantz if he would join a coalition under Netanyahu if the third round also failed to produce a clear winner.

“There is no situation in which I will sit under Netanyahu as prime minister when he has three charges against him,” Gantz replied.

Turnout unknown

The opinion polls show that even with their respective allies – the right and Jewish Orthodox parties for Netanyahu and the centre-left for Gantz – neither side could gather the 61 seats necessary to form a viable coalition.

With a country largely jaded by three general elections in less than a year along with municipal polls in between, voter turnout is the great unknown.

That has forced candidates to put added energy into bolstering turnout.

“I am encouraging citizens to get out and vote,” Gantz told public radio Sunday.

“You can’t just sit at home clicking your tongue, saying, ‘Oy vey! What’s happening here?’ Voting is critical,” he said.

Arab votes

In the September election, turnout unexpectedly increased 1.5 percent to 70 percent compared to April, largely due to an unexpected surge in Arab votes.

Israeli Arab parties, united in the Joint List alliance, garnered 13 Knesset seats, making them the third-largest grouping, after Blue and White’s 33 and Likud’s 32.

This time around they hope to do better still, due to Arab voters’ opposition to US President Donald Trump’s controversial Middle East peace plan, which is supported by both Netanyahu and Gantz.

“We want the fall of Netanyahu because he is the greatest inciter against Arab citizens and the godfather of the ‘Deal of the Century’,” Joint List leader Ayman Odeh said, using a common nickname for the Trump plan.

The plan endorses the Jewish state’s major priorities at the expense of the Palestinians, who gave no input to the Trump initiative and rejected it immediately.

On Sunday Netanyahu pledged to annex key parts of the occupied West Bank within “weeks” if re-elected.

In an interview with Israeli public radio, he said annexation of the strategically crucial Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank was his top priority.

“That will happen within weeks, two months at the most, I hope,” he said in the interview aired 24 hours before polls were scheduled to open.

But former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, also an ex-Netanyahu ally, publicly accused the prime minister of engaging in empty political rhetoric. 

Lieberman, who heads the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party and may again be in the position of kingmaker following Monday’s vote, said he had “ironclad information” that Netanyahu’s comments on the Jordan Valley were at least partly insincere.

“A few days ago, it became clear to me that he sent a message to [Jordan’s] King Abdullah, [saying], ‘Don’t worry, it's just elections, there will be no annexation of the Jordan Valley’,” Lieberman said in a TV interview. 

Coronavirus effect

There is another new element in this third round – the coronavirus.

Over the past 10 days, electioneering has shared media headlines with the global COVID-19 epidemic, which has reached Israel with six officially confirmed cases of infection.

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

Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan has warned against potential attempts to spread false rumours about the outbreak in order to diminish voter turnout.

Netanyahu’s trial

Netanyahu’s graft trial opens on March 17 in Jerusalem. Accused of receiving improper gifts and offering a media mogul lucrative regulatory changes in exchange for favourable coverage, he was charged with corruption, embezzlement and breach of trust.

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.

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, Avi Regev, a long-time Netanyahu supporter, 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,” he said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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