JERUSALEM: Israelis began voting in an election on Tuesday that could hand conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a record fifth term or see him dethroned by an ex-general who has pledged clean government and social cohesion.
Polling stations opened at 7am across the country and close at 10 pm. But the victor may not be decided immediately. No party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-seat parliament, meaning days or even weeks of coalition negotiations will lie ahead.
Dubbed “King Bibi,” Netanyahu has rallied a rightist camp hardened against the Palestinians and played up Israeli foreign policy boons that are the fruit of his ties with the Trump administration.
But the 69-year-old Likud party leader’s hope of overtaking Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, as longest-serving premier in July has been dented by a looming graft indictment. He denies any wrongdoing.
Critics warn of “Bibi fatigue” and argue that the parliamentary election should bring fresh faces to high office.
Stalking Netanyahu in the opinion polls has been Benny Gantz, a former chief of the armed forces and centrist political novice. Buttressed by two other former generals at the top of his Blue and White party, Gantz, 59, has sought to push back against Netanyahu’s self-styled image as unrivalled in national security.
“This is a choice between a strong right-wing government under Netanyahu or a weak leftist government under Gantz,” Likud said in a statement.
Gantz told Reuters in response: “Netanyahu is not the messiah, nor an irreplaceable legend. The people of Israel long for something else.”
With little policy daylight separating the two candidates on Iran and the Palestinians, or on Israel’s humming economy, much of the voting will by guided by the question of their character.
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In vitriolic campaigns waged largely over social media rather than in town squares or street corners, they have exchanged escalating allegations of corruption, of fostering bigotry and even of conspiring with Israel’s adversaries.
Netanyahu casts himself as the victim of media bias and judicial overreach. Gantz casts himself as a salve for Israel’s religiously and ethnically riven society and its relations with liberal Jews abroad.
“This election is about one thing - whether or not Netanyahu should remain in office. It’s the only thing that really defines 12 out of the 13 parties which will be in the next Knesset,” said Anshel Pfeffer, author of the biography “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu”.
Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, will consult with the leaders of every party represented in the Knesset and choose whoever he believes has the best chance of forming a government.
Although both Netanyahu and Gantz have publicly ruled out a future alliance in a “national unity” coalition, some analysts predict a rethink - especially if the candidates agree to tackle together a widely expected US plan for Middle East peace.
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That plan’s sponsor, President Donald Trump, offered an unusually clement observation on the election, telling his Republican Jewish supporters on Saturday: “I think it’s going to be close ... Two good people.”