Israelis began voting on Tuesday morning in what is expected to be a tight race among candidates who seek to form a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
After over 13 years in power and despite multiple corruption scandals, which he denies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could be set to win a record fifth term.
However, final polls in the campaign on Friday showed that Netanyahu, also known as ” King Bibi,” had fallen behind his main challenger, centrist Benny Gantz, but still retains an easier path to form a government.
Polling stations opened at 5 am CET and are set to close at 8 pm CET. But the winner might not be announced immediately as no party has ever won an outright majority in parliament.
Bibi and Benny Gantz neck-and-neck
General Benny Gantz has several assets in this electoral race. First, he is ten years younger than his 69-year old rival.
His military reputation as a former paratrooper and chief of staff of the Israeli army is likely to reassure voters concerned with the country’s security — an area where the right usually enjoys more trust.
Yet while Gantz has fought many military battles, he is a novice when it comes to politics, especially compared to political veteran Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s strategy for this election has been to syphon votes from ultranationalist rivals, pushing his policies and rhetoric further to the right. On Sunday, he promised to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank should he win the election.
The prime minister furthermore struck a deal with a far-right party loyal to the policies of the late anti-Arab rabbi, Meir Kahane. Faced with criticism over his alliance with an overtly racist entity, Netanyahu has defended the agreement as a way to improve his chances of forming a right-wing governing coalition led by his Likud Party.
While this strategy risks alienating moderate right-wing voters, Netanyahu can rely on the electoral system — no party has won a majority of seats since Israel’s first election in 1949, so coalition-building will be essential.
Coalition building and kingmaking
Netanyahu will likely seek a coalition with ultra-nationalist and Jewish Orthodox parties.
Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White Party, will likely win the support of centre-left and left-wing parties, but polls predict he will fall short of a governing majority in parliament.
A far-right politician, Moshe Feiglin, has been drawing unexpectedly strong support, opinion polls show, with a libertarian platform advocating the legalisation of marijuana, free-market policies and annexation of the occupied West Bank.
In Israeli politics, a “unity government” can never be ruled out if the path to a right- or centre-left-led coalition proves difficult — even though Gantz has pledged not to serve with Netanyahu.
Netanyahu told a crowd of cheering supporters on Monday that “the only way to close the gap and ensure with certainty that Likud will form the next government is to have a big Likud.”
In the words of Haaretz, Israel’s national newspaper, Netanyahu’s long political career path is due to the fact that “Israelis are like smokers who would really like to quit, but who believe they can not function without their constant dose of nicotine.”