Israeli voters began casting ballots Tuesday in parliamentary elections that will determine whether longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains in office after a decade in power.
Clouded by a series of looming corruption indictments, Netanyahu is seeking a fourth consecutive and a fifth overall term in office, which would make him Israel’s longest-ever serving leader, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion.
He faces a stiff challenge from retired military chief Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party has inched ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud in polls. Netanyahu still appears to have the best chance of forming a coalition, though, with a smattering of small nationalist parties backing him.
Gantz cast his ballot in his hometown of Rosh Haayin in central Israel alongside his wife, Revital, and called on all Israelis to get out and vote, saying they should “take responsibility” for their democracy.
“Go to vote. Choose whoever you believe in. Respect each other and let us all wake up for a new dawn, a new history,” he said.
Netanyahu voted on Tuesday in Jerusalem alongside his wife, Sara. He called on all Israelis to vote, calling it a “sacred act.”
“This really is a significant vote. It could make history,” <a href=”https://twitter.com/OrmistonOnline?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@OrmistonOnline</a> tells <a href=”https://twitter.com/cbchh?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@cbchh</a> as Israelis cast their ballots in an election that could hand Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a record fifth term in office. <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/CBCNN?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#CBCNN</a> <a href=”https://t.co/NN125G3XZi”>pic.twitter.com/NN125G3XZi</a>
The election has emerged as a referendum on Netanyahu and his 13 years overall in power, with the existential questions facing Israel rarely being discussed in the campaign. The 69-year-old prime minister has been the dominant force in Israeli politics for the past two decades and its face to the world.
But his various corruption scandals have created some voter fatigue, and in recent days he’s vowed to annex Jewish West Bank settlements if re-elected — a prospect that could doom the already slim hopes of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which Netanyahu has previously wavered on.
“It’s about time for a change,” said Barry Rifkin, a Jerusalem resident.
Hidden cameras banned after Arab party complaint
Israel’s election committee said midday voter turnout stood at 24.8 per cent — or down two percentage points from the 2015 elections — but the statistic may not be a prediction of the overall turnout as polling stations close at 10 p.m. local time (3 p.m. ET) on Tuesday. Many anticipate a last-minute surge of voters heading to the polling stations.
The committee also banned hidden cameras at polling stations following an Arab party’s complaints that it observed Netanyahu’s Likud party deploying staffers who attempted to secretly watch predominantly Arab polling stations.
Israeli media reported Tuesday that Likud dispatched 1,200 observers in Arab polls. The Israeli daily Haaretz published videos showing activists caught with cameras by police, with one confessing Likud had sent him.
Police said they were working to “maintain public order” after “a number of suspected irregularities” in northern polls.
Arab parties lambasted the cameras as a ploy to depress their constituents’ turnout. The Likud party declined to comment, but when a reporter asked Netanyahu about the claims as he cast his ballot, he responded, “There should be cameras everywhere. Not hidden. It’s important to ensure a legitimate vote.”
Netanyahu delivered increasingly impassioned pleas to voters to come out and support him as the day wore on. He took to Facebook in a steady stream of videos to rile his national base by warning that if supporters failed to vote, they’d wake up to a “leftist” government led by Gantz.
He said such a scenario is backed by a “secret deal” with Arab parties, which he often brands as his political foe; Netanyahu has become known for divisive campaign tactics, which critics call racial incitement.
Coalition inevitable — but under whom?
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. local time, with exit polls expected at the end of the voting day. Some 6.4 million eligible voters will be able to cast their ballots at more than 10,000 stations. Some 40 parties are running, but no more than a dozen are expected to make it into parliament. Election day in Israel is a national holiday, and turnout was expected to be high in good weather.
Official results will begin streaming in early Wednesday, but it may take far longer for a final verdict to come through, given the fragmented state of Israeli politics.
As many as a half-dozen parties are teetering along the threshold for entering the Knesset, or parliament. A failure by any of these parties to get the required 3.25 per cent of total votes cast could have a dramatic impact on who ultimately forms the next coalition. The Israeli government needs a parliamentary majority to rule, and since no party has ever earned more than half of the 120 seats in the Knesset, a coalition is required.
Netanyahu and Gantz have ruled out sitting together in government, so the next prime minister will likely come down to how many supporters each candidate can recruit.
Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, could play an important role. Though largely a ceremonial post, the president is responsible for choosing the candidate with the best chance of building a stable coalition government as prime minister.
Rivlin told voters as he cast his ballot in Jerusalem that “the only ones that will determine who will be prime minister, and what the next government will be, are you.”
“And in order for you to influence, you must vote,” he said.
Arab turnout is expected to be a major issue this time as well. Netanyahu’s campaign against Arab politicians, together with the new alliance with anti-Arab extremists and the passage of last year’s contentious nation-state law, which enshrined Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people alone, have deepened calls for a ballot boycott in Arab communities.
But some hope these blows will have the opposite effect, fuelling enough frustration to drive up the Arab participation rate, which is typically lower than that of Israeli Jews. A big Arab turnout could push smaller right-wing parties into the margins and even threaten Netanyahu’s long rule.
The leftist Meretz even put out a video urging Arabs to vote. “Bibi is counting on you. Because if you don’t vote, Bibi wins,” it said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.
Abbas calls for peace
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said “our hands remain extended in peace” on Israel’s election day. Speaking in Ramallah on Tuesday, Abbas said the Palestinian leadership hoped the outcome would help Israel “come to the negotiating table” and embark “on the right track to reach peace.”
But Abbas stressed that Palestinians would reject peace brokered by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.
Trump’s contentious policy changes, such as recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, have sidelined Palestinians, who seek Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital.
Gantz has indicated he would not foreclose future peace negotiations, while the Israeli military said it imposed a 24-hour closure on the West Bank and Gaza throughout election day, based on its security assessments.
On Tuesday, a new public opinion survey showed the overwhelming majority of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are disillusioned with their leaders and desperate for presidential elections.
The poll, conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre, showed that only 11 per cent of Palestinians trust Abbas — the leader of Fatah — and six per cent trust rival Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh. Around 48 per cent say they don’t trust any political figure, and 87 per cent are demanding elections.
The survey, which had a margin of error of 3 percentage points, was based on the responses of 1,200 people.
The Palestinian leadership hasn’t held elections since 2005 due to a bitter split between the West Bank’s governing Fatah movement and Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
Abbas’s 14-year rule has been marked by corruption and deepening Palestinian division.
This story originally appeared on CBC