As Israel Holds Election, Netanyahu Urges Supporters To Vote
Updated at 2:45 p.m. ET
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party are facing voters for the second time in just five months in an unprecedented contest that has the potential to end his decade-long grip on power.
Opinion polls ahead of Tuesday's vote showed the race between Netanyahu's Likud and the Blue and White, led by former army chief Benjamin "Benny" Gantz, once again a dead heat.
As he fought to stay in office, Netanyahu repeatedly broke election laws by making live media appearances during Tuesday's vote, according to the Haaretz newspaper.
Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, cast their own votes at the Gimmel Jerusalem Municipal High School Tuesday. Afterward, the prime minister urged his supporters to vote, using live video streams on his Facebook page to say his party needs to unite to close a gap that might allow what he called a leftist, pro-Arab government to take power.
Voting began at 7 a.m. local time (midnight ET) at more than 11,000 polling stations. A total of 31 parties were contesting the elections, though only about 10 were seen as likely to reach the threshold to win seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.
In Tel Aviv, voter Avi Yehudai — who supports Gantz — told NPR's Daniel Estrin that he's not optimistic about the outcome.
"I wanted Gantz, but I am very pessimistic," Yehudai says. "I think we will be remaining in the same situation as we are now."
Months of political limbo followed Israel's election in April, when both Likud and the centrist Blue and White party won 35 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
After that race, Netanyahu engaged in an ultimately futile scramble to secure enough allies among smaller parties to form a governing coalition. Rather than allow Blue and White an opportunity to form a government, he called for new elections.
When it comes to security issues, the political differences between Likud and Blue and White are narrow, with both sides taking a similarly hard line on the regional struggle against Iran and relations with the Palestinians.
If he wins, Netanyahu has pledged to annex the Jordan Valley in the West Bank, where Palestinians are seeking a separate state. Meanwhile, Blue and White says it wants to strengthen Jewish settlement in the West Bank and calls the Jordan Valley Israel's "eastern security border."
The parties do differ on domestic issues, particularly whether to include ultra-Orthodox religious parties in a governing coalition. Gantz rules it out, leading to speculation he may form a secular coalition with Likud — but without Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has sought to use his close relationship with President Trump to political advantage and some versions of campaign posters feature a photograph of Netanyahu and Trump shaking hands and grinning.
Just days ago, Trump also dangled the possibility of a U.S.-Israel mutual defense treaty — a move that seemed timed for the election — tweeting that he and Netanyahu could move forward with a treaty to "further anchor the tremendous alliance between our two countries."
Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving prime minister, has been dogged by multiple corruption cases alleging fraud, bribery and breach of trust. It is widely believed that if he manages to win a working majority, Netanyahu will use it to pass a law granting him immunity for crimes committed in office. The prime minister himself has repeatedly denied such a plan, labeling it as "false media spin."
In an appeal to voters, Netanyahu, writing in the Maariv newspaper on Monday, said Israelis find themselves "at the high point of an historic change in the history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel."
"I am asking now for your confidence in order to complete the historic task and fortify the State of Israel's borders and security forever," he said.