Israelis head to the polls for the third time this year

Israel held its third election on Monday in less than a year to break an overwhelming political stalemate, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continuing his re-election while facing a criminal act.

The campaign, which included confusion between Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and the main Blue and White opponents, was condemned by President Reuvin Rivlin as “horrible and filthy”.

Expressing the feelings of many Israelis tired of the elections after nearly a year of political stalemate and an interim government, Rivlin said that the Jewish state “did not deserve this endless instability.”

Election day is “normally a holiday,” he added.

“But the truth is that I don’t want to celebrate. I (only) feel a deep shame when I face you, my fellow citizens.”

The vote comes barely two weeks before Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, is tried after being formally charged in January with corruption, fraud and breach of trust.

But the latest polls have shown that Netanyahu, the first Israeli Prime Minister ever charged, has not lost support since the inconclusive elections in April and September.

Earlier projections said Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and Gantz’s centrist blue-and-white alliance would each win 33 seats in the 120-member Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in polls on Monday.

This result would be almost identical to that of the previous cycle, after which each leader tried and failed to form a government.

In separate television interviews on Saturday evening, Gantz and Netanyahu tore each other apart.

Netanyahu told private channel 12 that his opponent, a former decorated chief of the Israeli armed forces, “was not fit to be Prime Minister” of Israel.

“He is weak, he is not a leader,” said the incumbent.

The same interviewer asked Gantz earlier if he would join a coalition under Netanyahu if the third round failed to produce a clear winner.

“There is no situation in which I will sit under Netanyahu as Prime Minister when he has three charges against him,” said Gantz.

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Opinion polls show that even with their respective allies – the right-wing and Jewish Orthodox parties of Netanyahu and the center-left of Gantz – neither side was able to secure the 61 seats necessary to form a viable coalition.

With a country largely bored by three general elections in less than a year and municipal elections in between, voter turnout is the big unknown.

This forced the candidates to devote more energy to strengthening participation.

“I encourage citizens to go out and vote,” Gantz said on public radio on Sunday.

“You can’t sit at home clicking on your tongue and saying,” Oy vey! What is happening here? “Voting is essential,” he said.

Arab votes

In the September elections, the voter turnout unexpectedly increased from 1.5% to 70% from April, largely due to an unexpected increase in Arab votes.

The Israeli Arab parties, united in the Joint List alliance, won 13 seats in the Knesset, making it the third largest group, after the 33 of Blue and White and Likud.

This time around, they hope to do even better, due to opposition from Arab voters to the controversial peace plan of U.S. President Donald Trump, backed by Netanyahu and Gantz.

“We want Netanyahu to go down because he is the greatest incitement against Arab citizens and the godfather of the” Deal of the century “,” said Joint List leader Ayman Odeh, using a common nickname for the plan. Trump.

The plan endorses the main priorities of the Jewish state at the expense of the Palestinians, who made no contribution to the Trump initiative and immediately rejected it.

On Sunday, Netanyahu pledged to annex key parts of the occupied West Bank within “weeks” if he was re-elected.

In an interview with Israeli public radio, he said that the annexation of the strategically crucial Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank was his top priority.

“It will happen in a few weeks, a maximum of two months, I hope,” he said in the interview broadcast 24 hours before the opening of the polling stations.

But former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman, also a former ally of Netanyahu, publicly accused the prime minister of engaging in meaningless political rhetoric.

Lieberman, who leads the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party and may again be in the position of kingmaker after Monday’s vote, said he had “foolproof information” that Netanyahu’s comments on the Jordan Valley were at least partly insincere.

“A few days ago, it became clear to me that he had sent a message to (Jordanian) king Abdallah, (saying)” Don’t worry, his elections are fair, there will be no annexation of the Jordan Valley, “” said Lieberman. in a TV interview.

Coronavirus effect

There is another new element in this third cycle – the new coronavirus.

In the past 10 days, elections have hit the headlines with the global epidemic of COVID-19 that has reached Israel with six officially confirmed cases of infection.

Authorities have warned that fears of a new transmission of coronavirus in densely occupied polling stations could have an impact on voter turnout.

Homeland Security Minister Gilad Erdan has warned of possible attempts to spread false rumors about the epidemic in order to reduce voter turnout.

Netanyahu’s trial

Netanyahu’s transplant trial will begin on March 17 in Jerusalem. Charged with receiving undue gifts and offering lucrative regulatory changes to a media mogul for favorable coverage, he was charged with corruption, embezzlement and breach of trust.

Research shows that Israeli voters, including Netanyahu supporters, are concerned about the criminal allegations against him, said the chairman of the Institute for Democracy’s think tank, Yohanan Plesner.

“The figures indicate that about a third of those who identify as right-wing voters are very uncomfortable, or think it is impossible, for someone to continue serving as Prime Minister after having been charged, “Plesner told AFP.

But that “does not necessarily mean that they will change their voting habits,” he added, explaining that personal affinity for the Prime Minister and his policies may prove to be paramount.

Plesner explained that 70 percent of Likud supporters simply dismissed the indictments as baseless and “politically motivated”.

This position is “ridiculous,” he said, but noted that Netanyahu had cleverly managed to persuade some that he was engaged in legitimate political “maneuvers and transactions”, not corruption.

At the Gantz rally in Tel Aviv, Avi Regev, a longtime supporter of Netanyahu, explained why he decided to change sides and become a blue and white activist.

“Bibi was a wonderful prime minister,” said Regev, using the prime minister’s nickname.

But, Regev argued, Netanyahu had moved from focusing on Israel’s priorities to consuming his personal concerns, now including his corruption trial.

“Today is more:” Is it good for Bibi or not? “What I don’t like,” he said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)