Israelis vote in polls crucial to Nethanyahu’s grip on power

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Benny Gantz (centre) takes part in a campaign event in Tel Aviv on Monday, a day ahead of the electoral polls. Xinhua

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis began voting in an election yesterday that could hand conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a record fifth term or see him dethroned by an ex-general who has pledged clean government and social cohesion.

Polling stations opened at 7 am across the country and closed at 10 pm. But the victor may not be decided immediately. No party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-seat parliament, meaning days or even weeks of coalition negotiations will lie ahead.

Dubbed “King Bibi,” Mr Netanyahu has rallied a rightist camp hardened against the Palestinians and played up Israeli foreign policy boons that are the fruit of his ties with the US President Donald Trump’s administration.

But the 69-year-old Likud party leader’s hope of overtaking Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, as longest-serving premier in July has been dented by a looming graft indictment. He denies any wrongdoing.

Critics warn of “Bibi fatigue” and argue that the parliamentary election should bring fresh faces to high office.

Stalking Mr Netanyahu in the opinion polls has been Benny Gantz, a former chief of the armed forces and centrist political novice. Buttressed by two other former generals at the top of his Blue and White party, Mr Gantz, 59, has sought to push back against Mr Netanyahu’s self-styled image as unrivalled in national security.

After the election Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, will consult the leaders of every party represented in the Knesset and select the person he believes has the best chance of forming a government.

In vitriolic campaigns waged largely over social media rather than in town squares or street corners, they have traded escalating accusations of corruption, of fostering bigotry and even of conspiring with Israel’s adversaries.

Mr Netanyahu casts himself as the victim of media bias and judicial overreach. “This is a choice between a strong right-wing government under Netanyahu or a weak leftist government under Gantz,” his Likud party said in a pre-election statement.

Mr Gantz casts himself as a salve for Israel’s religiously and ethnically riven society and its ties with liberal Jews abroad. “Netanyahu is not the messiah, nor an irreplaceable legend,” Mr Gantz told Reuters in the run-up to the election. “The people of Israel long for something else.”

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