After Difficult Campaign, Netanyahu Fights for Record Fifth Term

YERUSHALAYIM (Reuters) -
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stands behind a voting booth as he votes at a polling station in Yerushalayim, Tuesday. (Heidi Levine/Pool via Reuters)

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu faced a battle for political survival in a closely fought election on Tuesday that could end his 10-year domination of national politics.

Opinion polls put the Blue and White party, led by former IDF chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, neck-and-neck with Netanyahu’s Likud, and suggest the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party could emerge as kingmaker in coalition talks.

“(The election) is very close. I call on all citizens of Israel to come vote,” Netanyahu said, his voice hoarse after weeks of campaigning, as he cast his vote in Yerushalayim.

Gantz voted shortly afterwards in Rosh Haayin, and wished everyone luck.

Prohibited by law from campaigning on mainstream media, both men took to social networks.

The two main parties’ campaigns in Israel‘s second Knesset election in five months pointed to only narrow differences on many important issues: the regional struggle against Iran, ties with the Palestinians and the United States, and the economy.

Leader of Blue and White party, Benny Gantz stands behind a voting booth as he votes at a polling station in Rosh Ha’ayin, Tuesday. (Reuters/Ronen Zvulun)

The election was called after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition following an April election in which Likud and Blue and White were tied, each taking 35 of the 120 seats in the Knesset. It is the first time Israel has had two general elections in a single year.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (local time) and will close at 10 p.m. when Israeli media will publish exit polls giving a first indication of the outcome.

“It’s going to be close. It’s going to be a close election,” President Donald Trump told reporters on Monday in the Oval Office.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz have tried to energize their bases, and poach votes from smaller parties.

Netanyahu portrays Gantz as inexperienced and incapable of commanding respect from world leaders such as Trump. Gantz accuses Netanyahu of trying to deflect attention from his possible indictment on corruption charges that the prime minister has dismissed as baseless.

Before the last election, Trump gave Netanyahu a boost with U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. This time, the White House seems more preoccupied with Iran.

The Trump administration plans soon to release an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that may prove a dead letter: The Palestinians have rejected it in advance as biased.

Weeks of wrangling over who should be tasked with forming the next government could follow the election. Opinion polls indicate Yisrael Beyteinu could hold the key to the next coalition because it is forecast to double its representation in the Knesset, from five seats to 10.