Blue and White leader Benny Gantz urged Israelis to boot his rival Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office, as he and other party leaders cast ballots in Israel’s third election in less than a year on Monday morning, vowing that they would break the impasse that has kept Israel without a government for over a year.
“It’s about time that we be much more united,” Gantz said after voting in the central town of Rosh Ha’ayin.
“I hope that today will be the day that we change the tune, stop the mudslinging (and) stop the lying,” he added, in a dig at Netanyahu, following an at-times bitter campaign. “Hopefully on this day we will begin the process of healing and begin living together with each other.”
After two inconclusive elections last year, opinion polls forecast another stalemate in a vote largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, who will go on trial on corruption charges two weeks after Monday’s vote.
Gantz was referring to a recording aired last week in which a top aide of his was heard calling him weak on Iran. On Sunday, evidence emerged that Netanyahu may have had a role in publicizing the tape.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, pushed back against allegations by Gantz that he would try to disrupt the election by spreading fear of carriers of the novel coronavirus being spotted at voting booths to lower turnout in certain places.
“I urge the citizens of Israel to go vote. This is a great democratic right and we should be proud of it, we can confidently go to vote today,” Netanyahu said while voting in Jerusalem.
“I say ‘confidently’ because we have done everything we can against the coronavirus. Everything is under control and we have taken every possible measure. Don’t believe fake news; you can vote with determination and confidence.”
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who is head of the United Torah Judaism party, called on people to vote “without fear of coronavirus.”
Authorities have set up 16 special polling stations around the country for the 5,630 Israelis under quarantine due to the coronavirus. The votes, which are placed in a lined ballot box, will be sent to the Central Elections Committee, where they will counted by staff wearing protective gear.
Voting in Jerusalem, President Reuven Rivlin called on people to vote and end the political deadlock. “This is normally a festive day, but the truth is that I don’t feel celebratory,” he said. “I only feel a sense of deep shame when I face you, my fellow citizens.”
“We don’t deserve another awful and grubby election campaign like the one that ends today and we don’t deserve this never-ending instability. We deserve a government that works for us,” Rivlin said.
Twenty-nine parties are running, but no more than eight are likely to clear the 3.25% electoral threshold needed to enter the Knesset.
The Central Elections Committee’s director general Orly Adas reported that 14.5 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballots by 10 a.m. — half a percentage point down on that same time during the last election in September, but “much better than we expected.”
Netanyahu is seen as fighting for his political life, with indictments in three criminal cases hanging over his head. His opponents say he cannot lead the country while on trial, but polls show his Likud party on the rise and his right-wing bloc slightly ahead of the opposition in the race for a 61-seat majority.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals in which he is accused of accepting lavish gifts from wealthy friends or exchanging favors with powerful media moguls. He has denied all the charges.
The first party leader to vote Monday morning was Shas head Aryeh Deri, who cast his ballot in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Deri said he is “convinced that this is the last time.” However, he said that “if [the right wing bloc] does not get 61 seats, the other bloc will receive 61 and I have no doubt that a government led by Gantz will be formed together with Liberman, Meretz and the Labor Party, with the support of the Joint List.”
“This is clear to me beyond any doubt,” he said, encouraging voters to cast ballots for his Shas party, or others from the right-wing bloc.
The leader of the predominantly Arab Joint List party, Ayman Odeh, said that it was impossible to make a real change in the country “without a partnership between Arabs and Jews.”
The Arab vote is seen to be crucial in this election, with the Joint List polling at a record high 14-15 seats.
While Gantz has vowed not to form a government with the faction, analysts believe he may try to mold a minority coalition backed by the Joint List from the outside,
Most, but not all, of the Joint List recommended Gantz as prime minister after September’s deadlocked elections and on Saturday, Odeh did not rule out recommending the Blue and White leader for premier again, but said Gantz would have to “change direction” to regain the Joint List’s support.
Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, who polls say still holds the kingmaker role for any future coalition, voted in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim.
“I urge the silent majority to come out and vote,” said the staunchly secular right-wing politician. “Tonight will be an important decision between a strong Yisrael Beytenu and a religious state.”
Liberman has dropped his previous demand for a Likud-Blue and White unity government, instead indicating that he will back Gantz over Netanyahu, but also signaling he may continue to play hard-to-get.
There are 6,453,255 eligible voters in Israel, though analysts fear that frustration with the political system after seemingly unending deadlock may lower turnout.
Party leaders and others will reportedly spend the day attempting to push people to the polls in areas where they have highest support.
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Yamina party urged people to get out the vote.
“This election is not about slander and filth,” he said at a polling station in the central city of Ra’anana. “There is also another way and it is for the love of the Land of Israel. Go out and vote.”
Amir Peretz, head of the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance, called it “an important day for democracy.”
Netanyahu is set to go on trial on March 17. He has used his position to rally public support and lash out at what he claims is a vast conspiracy by police, overzealous prosecutors and a hostile media to oust him.
Israeli law allows a prime minister to remain in office even if charged with a crime, while requiring other public officials to resign once indicted.
Polls have shown Netanyahu’s bloc at up to 58 seats compared to 55 for a centrist-left bloc lead by Gantz, leaving Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, predicted to win at least seven seats, holding the balance of power.
Pundits and others have already begun to talk about a fourth vote in several months if the stalemate is not broken.
Agencies contributed to this report.