Netanyahu fights for his political life as Israel heads to the polls

Netanyahu fights for his political life as Israel heads to the polls

TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was fighting for his political life as the country headed to the polls in an unprecedented do-over election on Tuesday morning.

The embattled leader spent the days leading up to the vote unveiling hard-line campaign pledges in a last-ditch attempt to win over right-wing voters and to draw attention away from his potential indictment in three corruption cases.

But it remains unclear whether Netanyahu’s pulling out all the stops will be enough to allow him to form the next government.

Ultra orthodox Jews line up to vote in Bnei Brak, Israel, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019.Oded Balilty / AP

His right-wing Likud party is currently running neck-and-neck in the polls with the centrist Blue and White party — with both predicted to win around 32 seats in the 120 seat parliament, according to Haaretz newspaper’s poll of polls. Both parties could struggle to form a majority coalition with like-minded partners — potentially delivering another inconclusive result less than six months after the last one.

The majority of polls opened Tuesday at 7 a.m. local time (midnight Monday ET) and will close at 10 p.m. (3 p.m. ET) with exit polls expected to be published by the major Israeli broadcasters shortly afterwards. Official final counts won’t be available for days but a picture of the result should become clear on Wednesday.

At 10 a.m. Tuesday local time (3 a.m. ET) the voting rate was the highest in over 30 years with some 15 percent of voters having cast their ballot, according to Israel’s central election committee.

“President Trump said yesterday that these elections are close. I can tell you this morning they are very close. I call on all Israeli citizens to come and vote, like my wife and I have,” Netanyahu said Tuesday as he and his wife Sara cast their vote at a high school in Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin and his wife Sara casts their votes during Israel’s parliamentary election at a polling station in Jerusalem Sept. 17, 2019.Heidi Levine / Reuters

Netanyahu’s main opponent, the leader of the Blue and White party former army chief of staff Benny Gantz, said Tuesday that a vote for his party was a vote for change.

“Today, we are voting for change. We will succeed in bringing hope, all of us together, without corruption and without extremism,” he said, in a thinly-veiled swipe at Netanyahu’s legal woes.

Many agree that this election boils down to a referendum on Netanyahu’s time in power. This summer he became the country’s longest serving prime minister, surpassing Israel’s founding-father David Ben-Gurion.

“This election is about the same thing that every election in Israel has been about for the last 25 years. Two words: Benjamin Netanyahu,” said Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States.

Tuesday’s re-run election follows an indecisive vote in April in which the Likud and Blue and White party captured 35 seats each. President Reuven Rivlin then asked Netanyahu to try to form a government after consulting with party leaders to see which candidate would have the best chance to cobble together a coalition. But the prime minister fell short of the 61 seats needed to govern by one, after his former ally Avigdor Lieberman refused to join his coalition because he was opposed to the influence of ultra-Orthodox religious parties.

Associated Press, Reuters, Lawahez Jabari and Paul Goldman contributed.

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