Israelis return to polls to decide Netanyahu’s fate

Israelis will vote on Tuesday in the second national election in five months, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition following weeks of negotiations.

Just as in April, this election pits the longtime leader of Israel against the one-time leader of the military, former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Benny Gantz.

Throughout the campaign, opinion polls have repeatedly shown a race that is too close to call, with Netanyahu’s Likud Party running almost neck-and-neck with Gantz’s Blue and White Party.

Netanyahu has been the face of the country for more than a decade. In July, he became the longest-serving leader in Israel’s history, surpassing the country’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s 4,875 days in office. He has touted his foreign policy accomplishments, the country’s steady economy, and sold himself as Israel’s “Mr. Security.”

Media blitz

Netanyahu has boasted about his tight relationship with US President Donald Trump; billboards across the country are plastered with photographs of the two of them together.

And in Trump-like fashion, Netanyahu has warned of election fraud, accusing Arab voters — along with the left — of trying to steal the elections.

In an attempt to energize his base, Netanyahu has reverted to his time-tested strategy: Warning supporters he is on the cusp of defeat, unless they get out and vote.

“Right now, we’re losing,” he said in a Sunday night campaign video. “If you go out and vote Likud, we’ll win.”

Netanyahu has conducted a last-minute media blitz, doing interviews with the major TV channels, newspapers, and radio stations. He has turned to social media, tweeting at a furious pace in recent days and hosting Facebook Live videos.

And he has made a sharp push to the right, promising to annex parts of the West Bank if he wins the election.

Corruption probes

His announcements have served a second purpose — keeping attention away from the corruption investigations he’s facing.

Two weeks after the election, Netanyahu is due to face a pre-indictment hearing over three separate graft probes.

The attorney general has said he plans to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery and breach of trust, pending the final hearing. The Prime Minister has maintained his innocence and refused to step down, opening up the possibility that he will become the first sitting Israeli leader indicted on criminal charges.

An outright victory in the elections could provide him the opportunity to pass legislation that would give him immunity from prosecution.

He knows how close he came to a clear victory in April’s election. Only the refusal of his former defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, to join a new coalition prevented Netanyahu from being sworn in for a fifth term in office.

It was the first time in the country’s history that a Prime Minister (who is formally appointed by Israel’s president) failed to form a governing coalition with a viable majority.

But instead of allowing his nearest challenger, Benny Gantz, to try to form a government, Netanyahu called new elections.

Career soldier

Gantz is a career soldier, having served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) for 38 years. He became the country’s 20th chief of staff from 2011 to 2015, leading the military through two wars in Gaza, in 2012 and 2014.

His campaign has struggled to control the news agenda of the elections, and analysts have said his campaign is lackluster. His main talking point: The threat he says Netanyahu poses to Israel’s democracy.

“Those who do not want to see a government that tramples on the principles of democracy, must go out and vote Blue and White,” Gantz said in a campaign message Sunday night.

Gantz has stacked the top of his party list with former chiefs of staff and a defense minister, trying to pull the “Mr. Security” mantle away from Netanyhu.

He came close last time. Both Likud and Blue and White pulled in approximately 1 million votes each, giving both parties 35 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Netanyahu’s Likud held an edge of just 14,500 votes, a result on which both parties hope to improve.

Voter turnout key

The results of this election may hinge on voter turnout. In April’s election, turnout stood at 68.5%.

Analysts say a lower figure favors Netanyahu, since it works to the advantage of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, who generally succeed in getting large numbers of their supporters to the polling stations. But, if turnout is high across more secular communities, and among Arab voters, then that could be in Gantz’s favor.

Avraham Diskin, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says turnout tends to be higher in tight races. But Israelis are also suffering from voter fatigue, forced to go through another election in such a short time span. Whichever of these opposing forces is more dominant Tuesday may have a large impact on the final results.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz claimed victory on election night five months ago, amid confusion over exit polls. In the end, Netanyahu was unable to form a government, and Gantz wasn’t given a chance.

Now it’s time for round two, where a second opportunity to win also means another to lose.

If, as elections polls have suggested all along, there is political deadlock once more, the only thing certain would be political uncertainty.