Netanyahu, Gantz, or 28 other parties? Israel goes to the polls, again
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Election Day 2019, Part 2Netanyahu: Right is in danger; Gantz: Time for him to go

Netanyahu, Gantz, or 28 other parties? Israel goes to the polls, again

Polling stations open for 6.3 million eligible voters, as a bitter, hard-fought repeat campaign season reaches its climax

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right. (Gili Yaari, Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Benny Gantz, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right. (Gili Yaari, Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israelis headed to the polls Tuesday for the second time this year in a closely fought repeat election that pits incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party against former army chief Benny Gantz’s Blue and White faction.

Over 10,000 polling stations opened around the country at 7 a.m. to allow more than 6.3 million eligible voters to cast their ballots for the 22nd Knesset, as a heated campaign season reached its climax, again.

Besides the two leading factions, the ballot offers Israelis 28 other diverse parties vying for their votes.

Political pundits say that voter turnout will be a key factor in the election amid fears of public apathy in Israel’s second election in five months.

After April’s national vote, Netanyahu, who in July became Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, ran into a brick wall when his Likud party along with its right-wing and religious allies won a majority of seats in Knesset, but failed to form a coalition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press statement in Jerusalem, September 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Rather than allow another candidate to have a shot at doing so, he opted for a second election by calling on the Knesset to dissolve itself and is now again locked in a tough race against his main rivals from the Blue and White centrist alliance.

This time, surveys have shown Blue and White neck and neck or slightly ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud, but with Netanyahu edging toward being able to muster a majority coalition of right-wing parties and retain his office.

Buoyed by a tight alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties but clouded by likely corruption indictments in the coming months, pending a hearing, Netanyahu is seeking a record fifth term in office, having served consecutively for the past 10 years, and also as prime minister in 1996-99.

But he faces his stiffest challenge in a decade from Gantz, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff who united his fledgling Israel Resilience faction with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party before April’s election to create Blue and White.

Head of the Blue and White party Benny Gantz at a party rally in Tel Aviv, September 15, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Building on its strong showing in April, the party, which boasts three former IDF chiefs, has managed to mount a serious challenge to Netanyahu’s image as “Mr. Security.” Its members have often appeared to be political neophytes on the campaign trail compared to the veteran prime minister, however.

Netanyahu has campaigned with a combination of divisive populism and attempts to portray himself as a world statesman by talking up his relationships with foreign leaders, including US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the campaign’s final days, he has again played to his base and veered to the right, vowing to annex the Jordan Valley area and all West Bank settlements if reelected and embarking on a media blitz in which he portrayed himself as the underdog and frantically warned that “the right-wing government is in danger.”

Likud party supporters at an election campaign tour in Jerusalem, September 13, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Gantz has used the close of the campaign to urge President Reuven Rivlin to help Israel avoid a third set of elections, implying that Netanyahu should not be tasked with forming a government unless he pledges to let someone else try should he fail.

“I call on President Rivlin, in order that we won’t go to elections for a third time, to give the mandate for forming a government only to whoever will promise to return it if and when he doesn’t succeed in forming it,” Gantz said at a campaign event in Tel Aviv on Sunday. He was referring to the idea that the president selects a candidate to have the opportunity to form a coalition.

Gantz’s entreaty to Rivlin came as Netanyahu has avoided committing to returning the mandate to form a government to Rivlin if he again fails to build a ruling coalition.

Under Israeli law, if a lawmaker is tasked with putting together a government and is unable to do so before the end of the legally designated period, he must return the mandate to the president, who then taps another Knesset member with forming a coalition.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox supporters of the United Torah Judaism party rally in Jerusalem, September 15, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, in April, Netanyahu pushed through a vote to dissolve the Knesset and call Tuesday’s repeat poll after failing to put together a government before his mandate ran out, rather than have Rivlin assign the task to another lawmaker.

Rivlin said earlier this month and again on Monday that he would do everything possible to avoid a third round of elections and suggested Netanyahu exploited Israel’s lack of a constitution to bend the rules of its democracy to stay in power.

“We have no constitution. Until the last election there was an unwritten constitution; there were clear rules of play,” Rivlin lamented.

After the elections, representatives from each party will meet with the president and recommend who they believe should form the next government. Following these consultations, the president will then task whichever lawmaker he thinks has the best chance at forming a government with doing so. This does not have to be the lawmaker with the most recommendations.

If the lawmaker can’t form a government after 28 days, he can receive a 14-day extension at the discretion of the president, as Netanyahu did earlier this year.

Democratic Camp alliance members Nitzan Horowitz, Ehud Barak, Stav Shafir and Tamar Zandberg on an election campaign tour at the Sarona Market in Tel Aviv, September 16, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Hanging over Netanyahu is a likely indictment in three corruption cases, including one charge of bribery, pending a hearing. While trying to form a government after April’s vote, Netanyahu was reported to have conditioned, or tacitly linked, entry to the post-election coalition on support for immunity arrangements, including possible new legislation, that would shelter him from prosecution as long as he remains in office.

Netanyahu has denied seeking such legislation but has refused to rule out seeking parliamentary immunity from his coalition partners should he be given the mandate to form a government again.

Confounding Rivlin’s decision on whom to task with forming a coalition, Netanyahu is set to face a pre-indictment hearing with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in early October, toward the end of the period in which the president must choose a candidate for prime minister.

Netanyahu has claimed that Gantz and his colleagues lack the experience and tenacity to keep Israel safe in the treacherous Middle East, would fail to maintain warm ties with world leaders, and would make dangerous concessions to the Palestinians.

Gantz, who has shared Netanyahu’s campaign-trail refusal to endorse Palestinian statehood, has argued that Netanyahu has become corrupt in office, and lost sight of his obligation to serve the people, and that it is long past time for him to go.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri delivers a statement to the press at the party headquarters in Jerusalem, September 16, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the final hours of campaigning on Monday, Netanyahu took to Facebook multiple times to warn voters that “the right wing is in danger,” a claim dismissed by Gantz as spin.

While the elections may turn out to be a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership, Likud and Blue and White are only two of the total 30 parties that are competing in the unprecedented repeat election. Only nine or ten parties at most, however, are expected to clear the 3.25% threshold and enter the Knesset.

There are 10,543 booths set up across the country, including 190 in hospitals and 58 in prisons, for Israel’s 6,394,030 eligible voters.

TV exit polls will be broadcast after polls close at 10 p.m., and results will be counted overnight, with a fairly clear picture of the Knesset seats likely to emerge well before dawn.

It could be quickly obvious whether Netanyahu or Gantz have enough seats to form a majority coalition, or, if the race is close, it could take longer before a clear election winner emerges given the complexity of the coalition-building arithmetic. Israel has never had single-party government, and the next coalition, like the last one, seems certain to be a product of tense negotiations between about half-a-dozen parties which may take weeks.

Supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu march at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on September 13, 2019. (Photo by MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

By law, the final election results must be published within eight days of the vote, but a spokesman for the Central Elections Committee said the counting would be finished by early Friday morning. All the counting is done manually, after the closing of the polling stations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote at a voting station in Jerusalem on September 17, 2019. (Photo by Heidi Levine / POOL / AFP)

Election Day is a legal holiday and has become an opportunity for Israelis to spend time at the beach, hold family barbecues in national parks, and hike trails from the north to the south — as well as to vote, of course. Turnout in April was some 68.5%.

Soldiers, foreign envoys, prisoners and hospitalized patients are the only Israelis allowed to cast ballots away from the polling station assigned to their place of residence.

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz arrives to cast his ballot at a voting station in Rosh HaAyin, September 17, 2019 (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Most of the polling stations opened at 7 a.m., and were slated to shut their doors at 10 p.m. (some voting stations in rural communities, hospitals, and prisons opened an hour later at 8 a.m.).

With candidates traversing the country in a final push for voters, Netanyahu voted in Jerusalem at 9:30 a.m. after Gantz voted in his hometown of Rosh Ha’ayin at 9 a.m.

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