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'A Choice Between Hope and Disappointment': Israelis Vote in Neck-and-Neck Election

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that 'Arab voters are coming out in droves', urging supporters to help Likud close the gap with the center-left Zionist Union, narrowly leading in polls.

by Harriet Salem and Creede Newton
Mar 17 2015, 10:20am

Photo via Reuters

This is a live story — check back for regular updates.

Israelis up and down the country headed to the polling stations to vote in a neck-and-neck election today, which has been billed by the opposition leader Isaac Herzog as a "choice between change and hope, and disappointment and downfall."

Final polls, released on Friday, showed little daylight between the two major parties with Herzog's center-left Zionist Union, a coalition of Hatnuah and the Labor party, leading incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party by just two to four seats in a 120-seat race to parliament.

Netanyahu was engaged in a last minute attempt to rally his supporters this afternoon, posting a warning on his Facebook page that "Arab voters are coming out in droves" and that left-wing organizations were bussing them to polling stations. "The right-wing government is in danger," he said, calling on his followers to mobilize.

The call drew criticism from opponents, Knesset member and candidate for the Joint Arab List Dov Khenin asking the Central Elections Committee to order the removal of the post. 

"A prime minister who campaigns against voting by citizens belonging to an ethnic minority is crossing a red line of incitement and racism," he said, according to Haaretz. Netanyahu was "ready to break all the principles of democracy to safeguard his regime," Khenin added.

The conservative leader later made an afternoon trip to Ashkelon, a development town just eight miles from the Gaza border and a traditional Likud stronghold. In this region Netanyahu's party receive around 40 percent of the vote and right-wing parties receive about 70 percent of the total vote. But the crowd that gathered for the prime minister's election day speech was only a couple of hundred strong and multiple attempts to rally the crowd over a megaphone fell flat.

Besieged by media when he arrived nearly two hours late, a stressed looking Netanyahu delivered an brief speech before being hustled away again by security.

Tiran Buzhish, 36, who attended Netanyahu's Ashkelon appearance with his family, was dismissive of the low turnout. "Everyone here is Likud anyway so they don't need to come and say it," he said. "Netanyahu is the only person who can lead our country. We need Bibi Netanyahu to keep us safe, everyone here knows this."

Nearby Buzish's children, covered in Likud stickers, played with a party banner draping it over their shoulders. "I'm voting Likud for the future of my children. This leftist campaign in the media about Israel having economic problems is not true. They're just trying to push Bibi out," he added.

Others were more anxious, however. "Bibi looked worried, he thinks he will not win, I could see it in his face," 64 year-old Solino Sabban, a diehard Likud supporter, told VICE News. "I am very worried that we will get a leftist government, he added.

In a nearby café plastered with Likud party posters, Arnel Bashaht, a manager of DIY shop enjoying a morning coffee, said that the mood in Ashkelon was changing. "This used to be all Likud, Likud but now there is a shift, there are people who used to vote for him who are not anymore," he told VICE News. Lowering his voice, he admitted he had voted for the center-left Zionist Union, not a popular choice in Israel's southern towns. "My entire family vote Likud or for the right-wing parties, but I've always been the black sheep," he added.

Nearby two shopkeepers who voted for Netanyahu in the last election said this time round they had gone for centrist parties, one for Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu party and the other for Yair Lapid's Yesh Ashtid. Both agreed they "didn't care" whether Netanyahu or Herzog took the prime minister's post, but wanted their choices to become finance minister in an eventual coalition. "The economy is the only important issue for Israel now," said 60-year old Aron Berko, a curtain shop owner. "Nothing else matters."

The situation is a far cry from where Netanyahu expected to find himself when he called the vote in December. Back then the prime minister was riding high in opinion polls and Israel's long beleaguered left was nowhere to be seen. Securing a third consecutive term in Israel's right wing political landscape seemed almost a foregone conclusion for "King Bibi" — a nickname bestowed on the prime minister three years ago by Time.

All that has changed dramatically in a matter of a mere three months. A concerted campaign by the center and left to expose Netanyahu's poor handling of the country's financial affairs has found resonance with voters. Around 20 percent of Israelis live below the poverty line, the cost of living has soared and according to a government report released last month house prices have risen by 55 percent in the five years between 2008 and 2013.

In Tel Aviv's central Rabin Square 64-year-old Sarah Aaron became emotional as she talked about her vote and the possibility of Bibi's exit. "I went for Herzog. I want a better Israel, an Israel where my grandchildren will stay," she told VICE News. "This man has bled the country dry. People can't make it to the end of the month. They can't afford their groceries because of him," she said gesturing to a campaign poster featuring the prime minister's face.

In Jerusalem, the divisions always evident in the supposedly united capital of Israel were on even sharper display on polling day. The residents of East Jerusalem, the proposed capital of a future Palestinian state were not enthused. Unable to vote in Knesset elections unless they take Israeli citizenship, they were going about their daily routines. 

"I haven't taken Israeli citizenship, no," Aamer, 23, told VICE News, citing his rejection of Israeli rule over East Jerusalem. "For me, this is just another day."

But in West Jerusalem, the streets were bustling with voters and an almost carnival-like atmosphere.

"Yeah, it's great to vote," Ben, a 27 year old American immigrant to Israel, said, but added that wasn't willing to talk about his vote.

Ozi Eincov Zeinyut, 55, told VICE News that he voted for Netanyahu. "He is like my father, but I was having some doubts," the longtime supporter of Likud revealed. Zeinyut was swayed by Netanyahu's recent move to the right. "I followed the campaign in recent weeks. I was thinking of voting for [Jewish Home Leader Nafthali Bennett, but I like what [Netanyahu] has been saying.

Andres, a 26-year-old leaving a Jerusalem polling station who did not give his last name, told VICE News that he voted for the Zionist Union, citing economic reasons, peace with the Palestinians, and a general need for change in the Israeli government. "I have always been to the left," he said.

Andres was surrounded by young, secular Israelis who voted for Meretz, a smaller party farther to the left than the Zionist Union, but he viewed his decision as the "most rational vote." He said that the electoral system in Israel meant that he had to vote for Herzog and the Zionist Union, who need as many seats as possible to possibly form a government.

Zionist Union supporters taking a break in Jerusalem. Photo by Creede Newton.

"Netanyahu has been in power for 6 years, it's too much," he concluded.

Maya, 23, agreed. "With someone as a leader for so long, it's not a real democracy," the Zionist Union voter said. "We need term limits here, like they have in the United States."

Unprecedented block formations have also helped opposition forces unite against their common enemy, Netanyahu. The announcement of the Zionist Union joint stand and the decision of fractured Arab candidates to stand together on a Joint List for the first time have been bolstered by a so-called "anyone but Bibi" campaign spearheaded by "Victory 15" a US-based movement that has received financial backing from Jewish American billionaire S Daniel Abraham.

The entrance of the centrist Kulanu party led by Moshe Kahlon, a defected Likud minister who won Israelis' affection in 2013 by forcing cellphone networks to slash the price of their services, has also played a role, stealing a sizable number of votes from Likud even in its strongholds.

Combined, it might just be enough to steal Bibi's crown.

Yet the result is far from a foregone conclusion. Israel's generally right-leaning politics is based on complex and fragile system of coalition building that is more favorable to Netanyahu's Likud. No single party has ever managed to win the required 61 majority needed to govern the Knesset on its own, and with both the forerunners in Tuesday's race polling well below 30 seats, smaller parties are set to play kingmaker once the votes are counted. Importantly Kahlon's Kulanu could still go either way.

For his part Netanyahu has not given up yet. Addressing a crowd of around 20,000 at a right-wing rally in Tel Aviv on Sunday night from behind bulletproof glass the embattled prime minister warned that Jerusalem could "remain united" under only him and reiterated claims of a leftist plot to usurp him backed by foreign investors.

The speech was just part of a last-ditch bid by the prime minister to persuade far-right party voters to move over to Likud in order to block a leftist coalition taking the helm of government. On the eve of the election itself, Netanyahu announced an about turn on his infamous 2009 "Bar Ilan" speech, in which he committed to a two-state solution in a magazine with NGR.

Earlier that day Netanyahu also paid a visit to Har Homa, a controversial settlement in West Bank beyond 1967 lines, to declare that a leftist government would allow a "Hamastan" to be established in Jerusalem.

Bibi's bid to shore up support from the far right may smack of desperation, but his focus on security fears plays well with many voters.

For Israelis living in settlements and towns near the Gaza border that take the brunt of Hamas' rocket fire, fears of a leftist government capitulating to Palestinians is strong.

An advertisement for Nafthali Bennett, the leader of Jewish Home, in Jerusalem. Photo by Creede Newton.

In Sderot, less than a mile from Israel's border with the Gaza Strip diehard, Likud supporter Haim Cohen, 54, said he had concerns about the economy but would vote for Netanyahu on Tuesday. "For now he has my vote, it's a matter of security and I don't think he's done a bad job," he told VICE News. "But if he doesn't address these [economic] issues I'll throw him out of office myself next time."

Adding to the complexity of making predictions about who will seize the crown is the large number of undecided voters. According to final polls, as many as 20 percent said they did not know who they would vote for with just a few days to go before the election.

"This is all about closing the gap. A couple of seats will determine which way this election goes," Rafi Smith, the Director of Smith Consultancy polling agency, told VICE News. "Last year we know 23 percent of people didn't even make up their mind until the day," he added.

Polls close at 8pm (2pm ET) this evening with the first exit poll results expected around 9pm (3pm ET).

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem