Election re-run looms for Netanyahu
JERUSALEM - Israel holds its second election in five months on Tuesday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu battles for political survival and the question of how religious the country should become emerges as a surprise issue.
Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister, suffered one of the biggest defeats of his career after April elections, when he failed to form a coalition despite his right-wing Likud and its allies winning a majority of seats.
Rather than risk having Israeli President Reuven Rivlin choose someone else to form a government, Netanyahu, who could be indicted on corruption charges in the coming weeks, opted for a second election instead.
Final opinion polls released Friday indicate another tight race between Likud and the centrist Blue and White alliance led by ex-military chief Benny Gantz, and a repeat stalemate cannot be ruled out.
Voter turnout amid election fatigue will be a key factor along with the surprising emergence of issues related to religion and the state.
And once again, the poll will to a large degree amount to a referendum on Netanyahu.
The premier's controversial pledge to annex one-third of the occupied West Bank if he wins and his brief escort off stage at a rally due to rocket fire from Gaza have been among the issues dominating the campaign's final days.
"If there's anyone who can affect President (Donald) Trump and the Congress and public opinion in the US -- that's the real power there," Netanyahu said in a Friday television interview during which he sought to burnish his leadership credentials.
"How do you think I have these achievements? ... It's the experience."
His rival Gantz has talked up his security experience and sought to portray himself as someone who can restore dignity to the premier's office, a reference to the corruption cases against his opponent.
"I'm telling you, we'll beat him," Gantz said in his own Friday television interview.
"I'm here to change the country. Bibi's end is a necessary part of it," he added, using Netanyahu's nickname.
Trump, Putin posters
Regardless of how many seats in the 120-seat parliament each win -- polls show around 30 -- a coalition will be necessary, and former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman could be kingmaker.
Lieberman and his nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party have touched a nerve with their campaign against the country's ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, an influential part of Netanyahu's coalition.
He accuses them of seeking to impose Jewish religious law on Israel's secular population and wants legislation ending the ultra-Orthodox's exemption from mandatory military service. Polls show he has gained in popularity as a result.
That could allow him to decide who is granted the opportunity to form the next government -- and whether his old nemesis Netanyahu can seek immunity from prosecution in parliament, as many expect.
Netanyahu has pushed to energise his base, including through tactics critics say amount to racism.
His Likud party has issued unfounded warnings that the election could be stolen through voter fraud in Arab areas, and Netanyahu sought last-minute legislation to allow party officials to bring cameras to polling stations.
The legislation, which ultimately failed, was widely seen as a bid to depress Arab turnout by intimidating members of the minority into staying away.
Beyond that, Netanyahu has again sought to portray himself as Israel's essential leader.
He has highlighted his relationships with Trump, who has shifted US policy overwhelmingly in favour of Israel, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he visited on Thursday.
Netanyahu's campaign has included giant posters of himself with each leader, though Trump's recent suggestions he could meet with the leadership of Iran -- Israel's arch-enemy -- were seen as a blow to the premier.
'Never go quietly'
Gantz has faced criticism from some who say his campaign was too subdued, and he has suffered gaffes while speaking publicly.
But polls show he has maintained support from those ready to move on from Netanyahu.
Gantz and his Blue and White alliance, which includes three former military chiefs of staff, have criticised Netanyahu over a truce with Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip.
Israel's newly reunified Arab parties could also prove decisive if they manage a repeat performance similar to the 2015 elections, when they became the third-largest force in parliament.
If so, they could block Netanyahu from continuing on as prime minister by recommending Gantz for the job.
Polls meanwhile show the extremist Jewish Power party, which many view as racist, could cross the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent to enter parliament.
Across the board, "the deciding factor is the turnout", said Gayil Talshir, political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.
She could not rule out Gantz joining a Netanyahu government under specific conditions, but said it was clear to her the pugnacious premier would not go quietly if he cannot form a coalition again.
"The only thing that Netanyahu cares about in this election is him surviving as a prime minister," she said.
"He will never go quietly."