Israel votes on Netanyahu’s political future

Israeli voters will go to the polls on Tuesday for the second time in five months to vote in a parliamentary election that will decide whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be extended in office despite allegations of corruption against him.

Netanyahu, 69, faces the biggest challenge in his re-election run, though his opponent is the same as in April’s election, former army chief of staff Benny Gantz and his centrist White Alliance.

Although Netanyahu and Gantz are the main players, Avigdor Lieberman, a former defense minister who was Netanyahu’s right-hand man before becoming a rival, could play the role of kingmaker in his campaign to “make Israel normal again”.

Polls open Tuesday at 7 am local time (4.00 GMT) for 6.4 million voters and close at 10 pm (19:00 GMT) in most areas.

Preliminary results based on exit polls will be released immediately after the ballot box closes, while official results will be announced on Wednesday.

About 18,000 police, security personnel and volunteers will be deployed.

Opinion polls indicate a tight race, with Likud, Blue and White winning 32 seats each in the 120-seat parliament.

After the victory of Netanyahu and his allies in the last elections, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin commissioned Netanyahu to form a government, but failed in his mission.

The failure of Netanyahu to form a coalition government after the April elections is considered the biggest defeats in his political life.

After weeks of discussions, Netanyahu preferred to go to a second election instead of risking Rivlin asking someone else to try to form a government.

Netanyahu’s danger goes beyond staying as prime minister, a post he held for the first time between 1996 and 1999.

He was re-elected in 2009 to serve as prime minister for 13 years, the longest time a prime minister has served in Israel.

Many believe that if he wins, he will seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution, while facing possible corruption charges in the coming weeks.

Israel’s attorney general said he planned to indict the prime minister, who is awaiting a hearing in early October, just days after the election.

Netanyahu will not be asked to step down if indicted, only if convicted and after all appeals have been exhausted.

Recognizing the dangers, Netanyahu spent the final days of his campaign in an effort to attract right-wing nationalists – who are key to his re-election – to boost voter turnout within his own electoral base.

Netanyahu’s efforts included announcing a controversial pledge to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, which accounts for a third of its territory.

He issued groundless warnings about the theft of elections through fraud in the ballot boxes in Arab villages and towns.

Critics said his speech amounted to racism.

In his speech, Netanyahu also highlighted the issue of economic growth in his country and his relations with world leaders such as US President Donald Trump.

He tried to describe his opponents as “weak” and “leftist”, despite their security credentials.

“This is your choice: their left-wing government or a strong right-wing government under my leadership”, he said on Monday.

His opponent, Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff, presented himself as an honorable replacement for Netanyahu.

He has repeatedly spoken of Netanyahu’s desire to form a coalition with far-right parties that could help him seek immunity from prosecution in parliament.

Gantz says he and his center-blue coalition, which includes three former military chiefs of staff, wants to form a unity government backed by the vast majority of Israelis.

“Netanyahu continues to spread shameless lies in a desperate attempt to save his government,” Gantz said on Monday.

“He is lying, scolding, dodging and broadcasting the band”.

Opinion polls show Lieberman gaining popularity because of his campaign against ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, which are an important part of Netanyahu’s planned coalition.

Lieberman accuses these parties of seeking to impose Jewish law on Israel’s secular population and wants to extract legislation that would end exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews from compulsory military service.

Lieberman prevented Netanyahu from forming a government coalition after the April elections, after he refused to give up his demand for military service to ultra-Orthodox Jews.

It is unclear whether Lieberman will endorse Netanyahu as prime minister again, which may be enough for the Israeli president to ask Gantz to try to form a government.