Election-weary Israeli voters headed to the polls on Tuesday for the second national election in five months, a tightly-contested vote that could bring an end to veteran leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s decade in power.
The vote pits Netanyahu, the shrewd right-winger who is the longest-serving leader in his country’s history, against Benny Gantz, the former head of the Israeli Defense Forces who now heads the centrist Blue and White alliance.
Polls showed the two main rivals virtually neck and neck heading into the vote, with neither likely to win an outright majority of the 120 Knesset seats on offer. The vote will likely be followed by a period of intense political horse-trading to form a coalition.
The outcome could deliver Israel a new prime minister for the first time in a decade — or represent a remarkable act of survival for Netanyahu, who is expected to use any return to power to attempt to shield himself from possible indictments in three longrunning graft cases.
Netanyahu’s big campaign promises
Netanyahu has dominated the campaign with blustering efforts to rouse his base: most notably, he pledged last week to annex about a third of the occupied West Bank if he’s re-elected — a step he promised would allow him “to fortify the State of Israel’s borders and security forever.”
Most opponents and analysts dismissed the pledge as an empty political stunt. “It’s unlikely [this was] more than electioneering,” Jack Kennedy, senior analyst at IHS Markit Country Risk told VICE News.
Netanyahu’s campaign has also played up his close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, plastering pictures of the two leaders together on billboards around the country. He has demonized Israel’s Arab minority, warning of potential voter fraud in Arab areas.
Last week, Facebook
a chatbot on his official page for breaching its hate speech policy, after it cautioned of Arabs who “want to destroy us all.”
The bluster has helped to drown out attacks from rivals targeting one of Netanyahu’s greatest vulnerabilities — the long-running graft probes that could lead to his indictment.
In just a few weeks, Netanyahu is due to face a pre-indictment hearing over three separate graft probes. Israel’s attorney general said in February that he plans to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery and breach of trust, pending a final hearing with Netanyahu and his lawyers scheduled for next month.
But a return to power would give Netanyahu the opportunity to pass laws shielding himself from prosecution.
“For Netanyahu himself, at stake is not just his tenure but possibly his personal freedom,” according to Natan Sachs, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, who believes Netanyahu will “almost certainly” seek immunity from prosecution, with approval from the Knesset, if he wins outright. Any immunity, however, would likely be challenged by Israel’s Supreme Court.
Gantz’s pitch to voters
Gantz, who co-founded Blue and White with the explicit goal of dislodging Netanyahu from office, has targeted the prime minister’s alleged corruption and sought to paint him as a threat to democracy, telling supporters: "Those who do not want to see a government that tramples on the principles of democracy, must go out and vote Blue and White.”
A career soldier who led the military through two wars in Gaza in 2012 and 2014, he’s sought to undermine Netanyahu’s claim to be the most powerful guarantor of Israel’s security. Gantz has vowed to use “disproportionate force” in response to rocket attacks from Gaza.
He’s also pledged to end the grip fringe pressure groups hold on Israeli politics, and create a centrist unity government with the interests of the majority front-and-center. “No more instigating rifts in an attempt to divide and conquer, but rather quick action to form a unity government,” he pledged in a recent op-ed.
What does this mean for tensions in the region?
Analysts say that whichever main contender wins, there won’t be a significant impact on Israel’s hawkish security posture.
Gantz, a career soldier, has been at pains to emphasize there is no real distance between himself and Netanyahu when it comes to arch-enemy Iran and its nuclear ambitions, said Kennedy. There’s also broad political consensus over Israel’s security red lines. And if Iran continues to build its military presence in neighboring Syria, and to develop its capabilities in Lebanon, then Israel’s campaign of airstrikes against its targets in those countries is almost certain to continue.
Too close to call
With the two frontrunners polling so closely, and many smaller parties polling close to the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent necessary to win seats, analysts are hesitant to make predictions.
“It is too close to call,” said Kennedy. “The importance is not which party wins the most seats, but who can pull a coalition together.”
A return to political deadlock is a distinct possibility, because there’s no clear path for either major party to form a governing coalition.
If no candidate can form a government, the country could even be headed for a third snap election — although politicians will do all they can to avoid another return to the polls.
Cover: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin and his wife Sarah casts their votes at a voting station in Jerusalem on September 17, 2019. Israelis began voting Tuesday in an unprecedented repeat election that will decide whether longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stays in power despite a looming indictment on corruption charges. (Heidi Levine, Sipa, Pool via AP).