Israel readies to vote with Netanyahu's future at risk

Laurent Lozano
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Bolstered by his reputation as guarantor of Israel's security and economic growth, Netanyahu has spent more than 13 years as premier

Bolstered by his reputation as guarantor of Israel's security and economic growth, Netanyahu has spent more than 13 years as premier (AFP Photo/THOMAS COEX)

Jerusalem (AFP) - Israelis vote Tuesday in a high-stakes election on whether to extend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's long tenure in power despite corruption allegations against him and a strong challenge by an ex-military chief.

Bolstered by his reputation as guarantor of Israel's security and economic growth, Netanyahu has spent more than 13 years as premier and opinion polls show that he could well win again.

He would be on track to surpass founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel's longest-serving prime minister if he wins.

In a last-minute appeal to right-wing voters, Netanyahu said Saturday he was planning on annexing Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank if he wins.

The deeply controversial move could end hopes for a two-state solution with the Palestinians if done on a large scale.

Netanyahu is fighting for his political life while facing a dual threat in this year's election.

The possibility of indictment hangs over him while a centrist alliance headed by political novice Benny Gantz is battling his Likud neck-and-neck in opinion polls.

Some surveys have shown that Netanyahu's party could win fewer seats than Gantz's Blue and White, but still be best placed to form a governing coalition based on support from other right-wing parties allied to him.

Through much of the acrimonious campaign, polls have shown Likud and Blue and White with around 30 seats each in the 120-seat parliament -- far short of an outright majority and necessitating a coalition, as is usual in Israel.

Netanyahu heads what is already seen as the most rightwing government in Israel's history, and if polling trends hold, his next coalition could be even further to the right.

But analysts caution against drawing conclusions just yet, pointing to the number of undecided voters and the possibility that smaller rightwing parties fail to win the 3.25 percent required to enter parliament.

"The Likud bloc seems to have a majority," said Gideon Rahat of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank.

But "it still can change because opinion polls cannot really tell you whether a party will pass the threshold".

- Essential statesman? -

Victory seemed sure for Netanyahu when he decided in December to call for early elections even though they were not due until November 2019.

The move by the 69-year-old known for his deft political skills was widely seen as a tactic to face the corruption allegations with a fresh electoral mandate behind him.

But since then, Gantz has emerged as a serious contender.

He has been helped by his decision to ally with two other former military chiefs as well as with ex-finance minister Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party, which currently holds 11 seats in parliament.

The attorney general's announcement in February that he intends to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust pending a hearing gave the premier's opponents a further boost.

Netanyahu has employed divisive populism throughout the campaign in what critics say has amounted to the demonisation of Arab Israelis and others.

Citing a law passed last year declaring Israel the nation state of the Jewish people, he said recently the country was "not a state of all its citizens".

He has also brokered a deal that could see the entry into parliament of a member of an extreme-right party many view as racist.

But he has bet on his experience as well, portraying himself as Israel's essential statesman, while denouncing Gantz's alliance as leftist and "weak" despite its security credentials and the fact that many of its policy ideas are similar to his.

In the weeks ahead of the election, the prime minister has met with his close ally US President Donald Trump, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

- 'No leader is king' -

Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital and Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, as well as Putin's help in returning the remains of an Israeli soldier missing since the 1982 Lebanon war, have played in his favour.

"What is important is who leads, the diplomatic navigator," Netanyahu said in an interview with Israel Hayom newspaper on Friday.

"I'm working against Israel's greatest enemies. They aren't."

Voters could again be drawn to the right-wing leadership of a man some have referred to as "King Bibi" due to his long tenure at the top, using his nickname since childhood.

Gantz, a former paratrooper who was armed forces chief of staff from 2011-2015, has highlighted his security background while offering a centrist vision on social issues.

He has argued that he can heal divisions he says Netanyahu has exacerbated.

"I do think that the time for him to end his job in a dignified manner has arrived," Gantz said in a recent interview.

When launching his campaign, he said: "No Israeli leader is a king."

With the election expected to be close, much will likely depend on post-poll negotiations to form a coalition.

"Whatever the results are, the formation of a coalition will probably be the most complicated one since 1961," said political scientist Abraham Diskin, referring to when it took David Ben-Gurion months to form a government.

More than six million Israelis are eligible to vote in Tuesday's polls, which open at 7:00 am (0400 GMT).