Israelis began voting Tuesday in the country's most closely-fought election in years that could propel incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces the ignominy of being indicted in a series of graft cases, to become the longest-serving premier in the Jewish state's history. Over 10,000 polling stations opened around the country from 7:00 a.m. (local time) Tuesday to allow more than 6.33 million eligible voters to cast their ballots. The results will start coming in at 22:00 (local time) Tuesday.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, the leader of the right-wing Likud Party, is seeking a fifth term in office. But he is facing serious corruption allegations and a stiff challenge from former army chief Benny Gantz in the polls that have been seen as heavily divisive. Gantz, who voted in his hometown of Rosh Haayin, called for a "new path."
"I'm happy to stand for the good of the citizens on a new path," the 59-year-old retired general said after casting his ballot. "We shall respect democracy and call for a respectful and quiet day from all sides." All the recent poll surveys have shown Gantz's Blue and White party in a close race with Netanyahu's ruling Likud party, or even performing slightly better to emerge as the single largest party, but the 69-year-old prime minister looks much well placed to garner a coalition given the dominance of the right-wing bloc which looks set to win majority seats in the 120-member Knesset (Israeli parliament).
However, many analysts have not ruled out the possibility of a unity government, despite the two main rivals ruling out the possibility of joining hands, given that the elections may be followed by US President Donald Trump's peace plan which may drive a wedge in a possible right-wing coalition. Trump has taken measures that have been seen by some as direct intervention in Israeli polls to help his friend Netanyahu, who is seeking a fifth term that would make him Israel's longest-serving leader, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion. However, Netanyahu's campaign has been clouded by a series of looming corruption indictments.
He has been premier for a total of more than 13 years. He faces his stiffest challenge in a decade from Gantz, a former military chief making his first foray into politics, who has bolstered his chances by uniting his fledgeling faction with Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party and former defence minister Moshe Ya'alon's Telem party to create the Blue and White party.
At a rally in Jerusalem Monday, Netanyahu told his supporters not to be "complacent" and urged them to turn out at polling stations. He warned that his "leftist" rivals could still win. Gantz Monday dismissed the prime minister's dire warnings about the right-wing, saying it was only Netanyahu's hold on power that was in a precarious position.
"The right is not in danger, Netanyahu is in danger. It is not a security threat, but a legal one," the former general told Army radio. Israel needed to choose between "a direction of unity and connection and hope" and one of "extremism," he said and vowed to form "a cabinet of reconciliation, with representatives from the (current) coalition and opposition".
A jittery Netanyahu in the final days of his campaign veered to the right vowing to annex the Jewish West Bank settlements if re-elected, a move if executed would certainly kill the possibility of reviving Israel-Palestinian peace talks. The issue of reviving the peace process with the Palestinians has in any case been pushed to the backburner with none of the serious contenders giving it any sort of prominence.
The controversial statement by Netanyahu on annexation of West Bank settlements is being viewed as a desperate attempt to cut into the votes of other right-wing parties to ensure that Likud emerges as the single largest party and gets a definite first shot at cobbling a government. A similar controversial statement by Netanyahu during the last general elections urging right-wing voters to go to vote as "Arabs were polling in droves" had helped boost Likud's prospects and some analysts see him as resorting to a similar gimmick by announcing the intent to annex.
Hanging over Netanyahu is a likely indictment in three corruption cases, including one charge of bribery. He has been rumoured to be planning to condition, or tacitly link, entry to the post-election coalition he hopes to form on support for the so-called "French law," which would shelter him from prosecution as long as he remains in office. He, however, denied seeking such legislation. "There will be no French Law and no change to the immunity law. It's all spin," he told a television channel. The final results are likely to be published on Thursday but the government formation is expected to take much longer.
By law, the final results must be published within eight days of the vote, but a spokesman for the Central Elections Committee said the counting would be finished on Thursday afternoon. All the counting is done manually, following the closing of the polling stations.
(With inputs from agencies.)