International

Israel election: Netanyahu in tough fight in this year’s second vote

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Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting to hold on to power, as voters go to the polls in one of its closest election races in years.

He called the snap election after failing to form a governing coalition in the wake of an election in April.

Polls forecast his right-wing Likud party to tie with its main challenger, the centrist Blue and White party led by former military chief Benny Gantz.

Smaller parties could therefore have a big say in the final outcome.

Negotiations on the formation of a new coalition are expected to start as soon as voting ends at 22:00 (19:00 GMT) and exit polls are published.

Likud and Blue and White came away with 35 seats each in the 120-seat Knesset.

Mr Netanyahu declared victory and it appeared that he would be able to secure a majority with the backing of smaller right-wing and religious parties. But after several chaotic weeks the attempted coalition-building collapsed into recriminations.

On the surface was a dispute over Israel’s secular versus its religious character, says the BBC’s Tom Bateman in Jerusalem.

But ultimately, our correspondent adds, Mr Netanyahu’s problems stemmed from a narrowing range of options to build a governing bloc, weakened as he is by the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust he faces in three corruption cases, pending a final hearing.

Mr Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing. He refuses to rule out seeking parliamentary immunity should he stay in power.

Throughout the campaign Mr Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, has made ever more strident appeals to the right wing as he seeks a record fifth term.

Last week, Mr Netanyahu declared he would “apply Israeli sovereignty” in the Jordan Valley if he won. The announcement amounted to a promise to effectively annex 30% of the occupied West Bank, which Palestinians want to be part of a future state.

Amid international condemnation, the Palestinian leadership called the move a war crime which would bury any prospects for peace.

Mr Netanyahu also reiterated a pledge from the last election to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

Mr Netanyahu faces an emergent centrist alliance studded with retired generals, who say they will end Israel’s increasing divisions. Blue and White was founded in February by Mr Gantz and Yair Lapid, a former finance minister and leader of the Yesh Atid party.

Writing in the Maariv, Mr Gantz said a victory for Blue and White would “change the direction of the ship of state of Israeli democracy”.

“No more instigating rifts in an attempt to divide and conquer, but rather quick action to form a unity government,” he wrote. “No looking out for the interests of pressure groups, but rather a government that looks out for the majority of Israeli citizens.”

It is not clear where Mr Gantz stands on Mr Netanyahu’s plan to annex Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley. He has not said whether or not he accepts the idea of a Palestinian state, although he rejects withdrawing from all of the West Bank.

BBC

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