Netanyahu poised for fifth term as Israel goes to polls

Incumbent PM engages in media blitz amid fears Likud may not return as largest party

Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu: some believe a  national unity government with Benny Gantz is  possible. Photograph: Dan Balilty/New York Times

Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu: some believe a national unity government with Benny Gantz is possible. Photograph: Dan Balilty/New York Times

 

Israelis vote in a general election on Tuesday with polls showing Binyamin Netanyahu likely to win an unprecedented fifth term as prime minister, even though his ruling Likud party may not end up as the largest party.

The race remains tight and Mr Netanyahu, who usually shuns interviews, has spent the last few days embarking on a media blitz, repeating the message that “the right-wing government is in danger”, and calling on the public to save Israel from the clutches of the left by voting only for the Likud.

Leaders of the smaller right-wing parties reacted angrily at the attempt to cannibalise their votes, warning that Mr Netanyahu’s tactics were liable to backfire and pave the way for a government led by Benny Gantz, the former top general who heads the new centrist Blue and White party.

Mr Gantz said that Mr Netanyahu was panicking and had launched a “the end is nigh” campaign, but that he would not succeed in preventing Blue and White from emerging as the largest party.

Pollsters estimate that up to 7 per cent of prospective voters had not yet decided how to vote on the eve of the election, leaving up to nine seats up for grabs in the 120-seat Knesset.

‘Strong polarisation’

Israel’s most prominent pollster, Dr Mina Zemah, said there were perhaps fewer undecided voters in these elections than in previous ones.

“The strong polarisation this time between the two camps caused the centre to disappear. Instead, what we have is the pro-Bibi camp and the anti-Bibi camp, and the voters feel that they have to choose between the two.”

For Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing/religious bloc to lose power, at least two of his smaller potential coalition partners will have to fail to pass the minimum 3.25 per cent threshold required for Knesset representation.

Mr Netanyahu has also expressed concern that Moshe Faiglin, the maverick head of the far-right/libertarian, pro-marijuana Zehut (Identity) party, counted as part of the right-wing bloc, may not recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that he heads the next government.

Mr Rivlin will task either Mr Netanyahu or Mr Gantz with cobbling together a coalition only after consultations with all the party leaders represented in the next Knesset.

Dead heat

The designated candidate will have 28 days to form a government.

Despite strenuous denials by both camps, some commentators believe that the option of a Netanyahu-Gantz national unity government remains a possibility, particularly in the event of a dead heat between the blocs.

Adding weight to this scenario is the fact that US president Donald Trump is expected to unveil his long-awaited Middle East peace plan shortly after the election.

After receiving three precious gifts from Mr Trump – the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights – it could be payback time for Mr Netanyahu, and only by ditching his right-wing allies and bringing Mr Gantz into the government would he be able to sign up to Mr Trump’s “deal of the century”.