JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin 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 former armed forces chief Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party neck-and-neck with Netanyahu’s right-wing 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 Jerusalem.
Gantz voted shortly afterwards in Rosh Haayin, near Tel Aviv, and wished everyone luck.
Prohibited by law from campaigning on mainstream media, both men took to social networks. Netanyahu live-streamed a Q&A session on Twitter, pleading for his base to mobilize. Gantz posted a video of himself leaning out a car window in traffic during a random encounter with a supportive commuter.
The two main parties’ campaigns in Israel’s second parliamentary 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.
An end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to lead to a big change in policy on hotly disputed issues in the peace process with the Palestinians that collapsed five years ago.
Netanyahu has announced his intention to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, where the Palestinians seek statehood. But Blue and White has also said it would strengthen Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, with the Jordan Valley as Israel’s “eastern security border”. The Palestinians and many countries consider the settlements to be illegal.
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, or parliament. It is the first time Israel has had two general elections in a single year.
Netanyahu, 69, has cast himself as indispensable and blighted by voter complacency over his tenure – the longest of any Israeli prime minister. Prime minister from June 1996 until July 1999, he has held the post since March 2009 and is seeking a record fifth term.
SEEKING “EVERY EXTRA VOTE”
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) 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,” U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters on Monday in the Oval Office.
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