Israel seeks end to deadlock with third election in a year

JERUSALEM – Israel held its third election in less than a year on Monday, March 2, seeking to break a grinding political deadlock, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chasing reelection while facing criminal indictment.

The campaign, which included tit-for-tat mudslinging between Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and main challengers Blue and White, was condemned by President Reuvin Rivlin as "awful and grubby."

Voicing the feelings of many ballot-weary Israelis after nearly a year of political stalemate and a caretaker government, Rivlin said the Jewish state does not "deserve this never-ending instability."

Election day is "normally a festive day," he added.

"But the truth is that I don't feel like celebrating. I only (feel) a sense of deep shame when I face you, my fellow citizens."

The vote comes just two weeks before Netanyahu, the longest-serving premier in Israeli history, stands trial after being formally charged in January with bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

But final polls indicated that Netanyahu, the first Israeli prime minister ever indicted in office, had not lost support since inconclusive elections in April and September.

Voting in the central town of Rosh Haayin, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz voiced hope that Israelis would finally "change the tune" after 11 years of the current Netanyahu tenure.

But Likud and the centrist Blue and White are both expected to fall well short of the 61 seats needed for a majority in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, and will have to strike deals with smaller parties to forge a stable coalition.

That proved impossible after the last two votes and a further stalemate remains possible, with few undecided in the divided country of 6.4 million eligible voters.

'Nothing else to vote for'

Political leaders are keen to avoid a fourth vote given the damage done by the impasse, as the caretaker government's inability to pass a budget has left key social programs unfunded.

Netanyahu supporter Ella Levy told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that Israel was "flourishing" under the premier's leadership, downplaying the importance of the indictments.

"For me, he is innocent until they prove otherwise," she said at a polling station in Jerusalem.

The 70-year-old premier, who will face trial from March 17, faces accusations including receiving improper gifts worth thousands of dollars and offering a media mogul lucrative regulatory changes in exchange for favorable coverage.

His main opponent Gantz, a former military chief, has been accused of saying little about his vision for Israel, defining himself primarily as Netanyahu's clean rival.

Blue and White supporter Inbal, who did not want to give her last name, said Gantz "doesn't really impress" her.

"I honestly think they are losers, Blue and White. But there is nothing else to vote for for people with my opinions," the 27-year-old math student said in Jerusalem.

Coronavirus fears 

Facing static polls, parties focused their attention on turnout.

The election is being held amid the coronavirus epidemic, with 10 cases so far confirmed in the Jewish state and another 5,600 Israelis under self-quarantine, many of whom visited countries where the virus is prevalent.

"The coronavirus thing is completely under control," Netanyahu said after voting in Jerusalem. "People can vote with complete confidence."

Sixteen special polling stations for those under quarantine have been set up. Election workers in protective suits handled materials in bright blue gloves as mask-wearing people arrived to vote.

Trump plan

Exit polls will be released immediately after voting ends at 10 pm (2000 GMT), with final results expected Tuesday morning, March 3.

While many have predicted further deadlock, significant developments since September – beyond the Netanyahu indictments – could tip the results.

In January, US President Donald Trump unveiled controversial peace proposals greenlighting Israel's annexation of settlements and swathes of land in the occupied West Bank, sparking Palestinian outrage.

Bolstered by US support, Netanyahu has campaigned on building thousands more homes in Jewish settlements in the territory.

All settlements are considered illegal by the international community.

Gantz, a security hawk, has also welcomed the Trump proposals.

Despite backing Gantz, the mainly Arab Joint List alliance that finished a surprising third in September has campaigned on opposition to the Trump proposals, which were immediately rejected by the Palestinian leadership.

Ofer Zalzberg, an Israeli analyst at the International Crisis Group think-tank, predicted the final results will look similar to those in September.

"The most likely result is we wake up Tuesday morning still stuck without a clear winner," he told AFP. – Rappler.com