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Binyamin Netanyahu under corruption cloud, what to watch as Israel votes today

Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, has 120 seats. Members are elected from a single electoral district in a vote in which all Israeli citizens ages 18 and older can participate. About 5.8 million Israelis are eligible to vote on Tuesday.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi |
Updated: April 9, 2019 5:03:23 pm
benjamin netanyahu, israel elections, israel elections 2019, elections in israel, when does israel go to vote, polls in israel, political parties in israel, indian express Prime Minister Netanyahu campaigns in Jerusalem Monday. (Reuters)

Israel goes to polls on Tuesday to elect a new national government. Binyamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, 69, who has been Prime Minister since 2009, is seeking a fifth term that would set him up to become the country’s longest-serving leader, ahead of the iconic founder Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Netanyahu, who first became PM in 1996, won three consecutive terms beginning 2009, 2013 and 2015.

Election process

Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, has 120 seats. Members are elected from a single electoral district in a vote in which all Israeli citizens ages 18 and older can participate. About 5.8 million Israelis are eligible to vote on Tuesday.

Seats are allocated to parties by proportional representation; a party must win at least 3.25 per cent of the national vote to get a seat. A member can serve for four years, but early elections are extremely common.

READ | Netanyahu vows to annex West Bank Jewish settlements if re-elected

No single party has ever won a majority in the Knesset, where around 10 factions are routinely represented. Coalition governments are the norm. Netanyahu’s Likud party has 30 members in the outgoing (20th) Knesset.

After the results are out, Israel’s President takes a call on which candidate has the best chance of putting together a coalition, and gives him/her 28 days — with a possible extension of 14 days — to make an attempt. The leader of the largest party usually gets the first shot at government formation.

Parties in the fray

Despite its small population, Israel, like India, has a very large number of parties. The main players on Tuesday, according to a list compiled by Reuters, will be:

* Likud, led by PM Netanyahu: Biggest party on the right has a tough line on Iran, Syria and the Palestinians; many in Likud are opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state. Could win about 29 seats.

* Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz, Chief of Israel Defence Forces from 2011-15: Serious challenger to Bibi; Gantz has allied with another former general Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem and former finance minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party. Gantz has called for pursuing peace with the Palestinians while maintaining Israeli security interests, and has signalled he would make territorial concessions towards the Palestinians. Polls say the party could win 31 seats.

* Labour, led by Avi Gabbay: Labour, which ruled Israel continuously from 1948 to 1977, and again from 1984-86 (Shimon Peres), 1992-96 (Yitzhak Rabin, Peres) and 1999-2001 (Ehud Barak), and stresses social and economic reform, and a two-state solution, is in decline. Could fall to 10 seats from its current 18.

* New Right, led by Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked: Bennett wants to annex most of the West Bank, offering autonomy to Palestinians; Shaked wants to “reign in” Israel’s liberal and interventionist supreme court. Could win 6 seats.

* Right Wing Union, led by Rabbi Rafi Peretz: Represents Israeli settlers in the West Bank, rejects the idea of a Palestinian state. Could win 7 seats.

* Zehut, led by Moshe Feiglin: Ultranationalist religious party that has promised to legalise marijuana use. Could win 6 seats.

* There are at least 7 more parties in the race, all of which are predicted in opinion polls to win between 4 and 8 seats.

Big picture

The BBC listed a few big-picture things to watch out for.

* Corruption cloud over Netanyahu: This election is Israel’s closest in a long time. The PM faces a challenge not just from Gantz, his strongest political challenger in years, but also due to very serious charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, over which Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit intends to indict him. The date for his final hearing is yet to be decided.

* Likud may be biggest, but Bibi may not be PM: In the highly fragmented Israeli system, the leader who can bring together enough parties to control at least 61 seats, becomes PM. With Likud and Blue and White going neck and neck, it will be a test of who among Netanyahu and Gantz is able to build a governing coalition.

* Palestinian peace not on agenda: US President Donald Trump could publish his plan to solve Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians after the election. But most Israelis have lost faith in the “two-state solution” long favoured by the international community. On Saturday, Netanyahu made a provocative declaration that if re-elected, he would “apply (Israeli) sovereignty” to the West Bank, making permanent Israel’s control over the region and its 2.6 million Palestinian inhabitants.

* Demography will matter: Israeli voters belong to distinct social, ethnic, and religious groups. The million-strong ultra-orthodox Haredi vote has traditionally gone to parties chosen by their rabbis, but many of these votes are now going to mainstream parties on the right. Israeli Arabs are almost 20% of the population, but fewer than half of the eligible voters among them could ultimately vote, surveys have shown. A coalition of Arab parties that won 13 seats in 2015 no longer exists.

* A kingmaker could emerge: This, according to analyses published by the BBC and other news agencies, could be Moshe Feiglin of Zehut, who says he views both Netanyahu and Gantz similarly.

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