JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu battled for his political survival in the final hours of a close-run election on Tuesday, urging voters to support him to avert a “disaster”.
His voice hoarse from weeks of campaigning, the veteran leader took to the streets and social media, at one point using a megaphone in Jerusalem’s bus station, to appeal to voters to extend his unbroken decade in power.
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 suggested the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party could emerge as kingmaker in coalition talks.
Some three hours before polls were due to close at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT), voter turnout was 53.5 percent, or 1.5 percentage points higher than at the same time during an inconclusive election in April, according to the Central Elections Committee, which gave no regional breakdown.
But describing a possible outcome if his supporters did not vote for him, Netanyahu wrote on Twitter: “High voting percentage in left-wing strongholds. Voting percentages low in right-wing strongholds. Disaster!”
Without their support, “we will get a left-wing government with Arab parties,” he wrote.
Gantz posted a video of himself leaning out a car window in traffic during a random encounter with a supportive commuter. Gantz’s co-leader, Yair Lapid, urged left-leaning constituents to come out and vote and said “Bibi is lying,” using Netanyahu’s nickname.
Exit polls on Israeli television stations, immediately after the voting ends, will give an initial indication of whether Netanyahu, under a cloud of corruption allegations and in power consecutively for the past 10 years, has prevailed.
Weeks of wrangling over who should be tasked with forming the next government could follow the election.
Opinion polls indicate Yisrael Beiteinu, led by former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman, could hold the key to the next coalition because it is forecast to double its representation in the Knesset, from five seats to 10.
GRAPHIC: Netanyahu’s annexation plans – here
NARROW POLICY DIFFERENCES
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, the Palestinian conflict, relations with 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, cast himself as indispensable and blighted by voter complacency over his tenure – the longest of any Israeli leader. 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”
Both Netanyahu and Gantz, 60, 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 U.S. President Donald Trump.
Gantz accuses Netanyahu of trying to deflect attention from his possible indictment in three corruption cases, which the prime minister has dismissed as baseless.
Hagit Cohen, a 43-year-old social worker, said she would back Blue and White rather than her former favorite, the now fringe Labour party: “I don’t want my vote to be wasted. Gantz may not be perfect, but enough is enough with Bibi (Netanyahu).”
“There is a definite sense of fatigue. Many Israelis are fed up with the politicians, or expect more of the same,” said Amotz Asa-El, research fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute.
Netanyahu “knows that he needs every extra vote”, he said.
Before the last election, Trump gave Netanyahu a boost with U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. 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.
Netanyahu’s open door in Washington and other world capitals, at a combustible time on Israel’s borders with Syria, Gaza and Lebanon, remains a big draw domestically.
“There’s no one else running who is worthy of being prime minister,” said Alon Gal, a 53-year-old hi-tech manager. “With (Netanyahu), at least I know who I am dealing with.”
In Gaza, Palestinians awaited the results of the vote.
“This election affects many things in our life,” said Mohamad Abdul Hay Hasaneen, a janitor in the city of Khan Younis. “There might be limited escalations after the election, but I don’t think this would result in a full war.”
In April, there was controversy when election monitors from Netanyahu’s Likud party turned up with cameras in Arab areas. Locals accused them of voter intimidation. Likud said they were trying to prevent election fraud. Israeli Arabs normally vote for their own parties or left-wing Jewish ones.
Except for a few isolated events where police removed individuals from polling stations, the day progressed without major incident.
Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub, Ari Rabinovitch and Stephen Farrell, Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Mark Heinrich
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