Stick with 'Bibi'? Israeli voters make their choice

Alexandra Vardi and Michael Blum

Jerusalem (AFP) - Tamara Hacohen, 18, says she "grew up with Bibi," referring to Israel's brash prime minister who has dominated the country's politics for years.

But now she believes "nothing has improved" under Benjamin Netanyahu -- known by his nickname Bibi -- and is ready for change.

Benny Saville could not agree less. For the 49-year-old, Netanyahu "is the best".

The two were among Israelis voting in Tuesday's general election that was largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu's long tenure in office.

With Netanyahu having been premier for 10 years straight, and 13 years in total, whether to again stick with him even as he faces corruption charges was foremost on the mind of many voters.

Ex-military chief Benny Gantz and his centrist alliance mounted a strong challenge, while dozens of other parties were also in the running for the 120-seat parliament, ranging from right to left and nearly all points in between.

Hacohen was voting for the first time in her life and planned to take part in the ballot count in her Arnona neighbourhood in Jerusalem.

She was wearing a t-shirt for Gantz's Blue and White alliance and urged passers-by to convince undecided voters.

"My four-year-old cousin asked me 'if Bibi is accused of corruption, why is he prime minister?'" she said.

"It's as simple as that. It's surreal!"

- 'No support' -

In the working-class Jerusalem neighbourhood of Katamon, Marina Dyashenka, a 42-year-old nurse, said she decided to vote for Gantz also.

Arriving to vote with her two sons, she spoke of the high cost of living in Israel -- a common concern in the country despite its economic growth.

She also spoke of a "lack of beds, funding, personnel" at the hospital where she works.

"We have no support anywhere," she said.

Shahar Levinson, who arrived to vote in Jerusalem with his wife and three young children, said he was voting for Netanyahu's Likud, citing security like many of the premier's supporters.

He also spoke of wanting a government that is "right-wing and capitalist".

Voting was also underway in Israel's settlements in the West Bank, the Palestinian territory under occupation since 1967.

In Elazar settlement, three parties had displays outside a voting station: Likud and two far-right parties, United Right and Zehut.

Saville, an accountant, said he was supporting Netanyahu as he did in the last elections in 2015 because he "is the best", but also because he finds Gantz "dangerous".

Likud won most votes in the settlement four years ago.

Yishai Dror, a 28-year-old banker, was voting for Zehut mainly because of its libertarian view of the economy.

He said he hoped for a coalition between Zehut and Likud.

"The right-wing bloc will be strong," he predicted.

- 'I pay taxes' -

In Jerusalem, most Palestinians do not hold Israeli citizenship and as a result cannot vote. They instead have residency cards.

Israel occupied east Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it. It now considers the entire city its capital.

A polling station was set up in Beit Safafa neighbourhood of mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem and saw only a handful of voters enter.

Marwan Alyan, 65, voted for Ahmed Tibi, one of the most popular Arab Israeli parliament members.

Arab Israelis are the descendants of Palestinians who remained on their land after the creation of Israel in 1948.

They account for some 17.5 percent of the population of nearly nine million people and hold Israeli citizenship.

They are largely supportive of the Palestinian cause and say they face blatant discrimination.

Some called for a boycott by Arab Israelis this year, but Alyan said he wanted to show "that Palestinian Arabs, despite all the challenges, want to vote and prove our existence".

He hoped that Gantz could beat Netanyahu and would be open to Arab parliament members supporting the government.

In the Israeli Arab village of Taibe in the country's north, Yasmine Faydeh also resisted boycott calls.

"I pay taxes for this country, so I have the right to vote and I want to use it today," she said.

"If we are not happy with someone, we must not boycott but unite to kick them out."

Away from polling stations, Israelis were also enjoying a day off since election day is a holiday.

With sunny spring weather, many took advantage by heading to the sea or holding family picnics and barbecues in parks.

In one area, hundreds had parked their cars by the side of the road in the Elah Valley west of Jerusalem to explore the area.