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

    September 17, 2019

    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.
    What happened last time?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.
    What is Netanyahu's pitch to voters this time?Throughout the campaign Mr Netanyahu, the 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.
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu votes with his wife, Sara"We find ourselves at the high point of an historic change in the history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel," Mr Netanyahu wrote in the Hebrew-language daily newspaper Maariv on Monday."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."US President Donald Trump's long-awaited plan for a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians is expected to be published soon after the election.
    What has Benny Gantz promised?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".
    Blue and White's Benny Gantz voting in the election"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.
    Why could smaller parties be key?The final polls suggested no clear route to government for either Mr Netanyahu or Mr Gantz.At total of 30 parties, with a wide range of policies, are contesting the election, but only a third of them are expected to pass the 3.25% threshold for entering parliament.
    Avigdor Lieberman, an ally-turned-rival of the prime minister and leader of the right-wing secular Yisrael Beiteinu party, could end up holding the balance of power.He prevented Mr Netanyahu from forming a coalition after the last election because he refused to back down in a longstanding dispute with religious parties over a bill governing exemptions from military service for ultra-Orthodox young men.Mr Lieberman has said the only way he will help return Mr Netanyahu to office is if Likud agrees to a secular unity government and shares power with Blue and White - something the prime minister has ruled out.President Reuven Rivlin asks the party leader most likely to put together a coalition of more than 60 members of parliament to form a government.That leader has 28 days to do so, with a possible extension of not more than 14 days. If that attempt to form a government fails, Mr Rivlin can ask the leader of another party to try.
    After April's election, Mr Netanyahu's attempts to form a new government failed and he ran out of time in May. He pressed for new elections and Israeli MPs voted by a significant margin in favour of a new poll.

    Israel's election: The most important things to know
    17 September 2019
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    Israelis are going to the polls on Tuesday for a second general election in just five months. What happens matters not only in Israel but also beyond.

    Here are five of the most important things to know.

    The winner will lead a regional superpower
    Israel has the strongest military in the Middle East (and is widely believed to have a nuclear arsenal), and the prime minister decides when to send it into action.

    Although the country is not fighting any full-scale wars at the moment, there is the ever-present danger that fresh conflict will erupt with its regional foes.

    Image copyrightAFP
    The two main contenders for the premiership have both positioned themselves as tough on security - the incumbent, Benjamin Netanyahu, has followed a strategy of air strikes and covert action against threats from neighbouring countries, while his most prominent challenger, Benny Gantz, is a former military chief on whose watch many such operations were carried out.

    Jeremy Bowen: Election a referendum on Netanyahu
    Whoever wins will have to decide how to deal with the biggest dangers - the growing presence on Israel's borders of forces backed by Iran, Israel's arch-enemy, and a belief that Iran wants to develop a nuclear bomb - and whether to risk a war whose consequences, observers have warned, will be catastrophic.

    It will affect the future of the Palestinians
    The fate of the Palestinians depends on who is in power in Israel, since Israel occupies land which they seek for a state of their own.

    Mr Netanyahu says he will never agree to a sovereign Palestinian state with powers like any other country (something which he says will be a serious threat to Israel).

    He has also pledged to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and a swathe of land known as the Jordan Valley (which comprises about 30% of the West Bank). Because they are built on occupied territory, the settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

     

    Media captionIs Palestinian-Israel peace plan out of reach?
    The Palestinians, who want the settlements removed, say such a move would make a Palestinian state impossible and kill the peace process once and for all.

    Israel and the Palestinians: What are alternatives to a two-state solution?
    Who is Netanyahu's challenger?
    Netanyahu: Commando turned PM
    It is less clear where Benny Gantz stands on the issue. He has not said whether or not he accepts the idea of a Palestinian state, although, like Mr Netanyahu, he rejects withdrawing from all of the occupied West Bank and has also said he will not divide Jerusalem, whose eastern part Palestinians want to be the capital of a future state.

    While Mr Netanyahu is politically right wing and ideologically driven by Jewish claims to the land based on the Bible, Mr Gantz is considered more centrist and moderate.

    The outcome won't be decided on election night
    This may sound paradoxical but Israel's political system - a form of proportional representation - means it is as much about political bargaining after an election than it is to do with the poll itself.

    Image copyrightAFP
    Israel has always been governed by coalitions of right-wing or left-wing blocs (or occasionally governments of national unity) - so the outcome of an election depends on what smaller parties demand from the winner (such as ministerial positions or budget pledges) in return for their support.

    Sometimes even a candidate whose party wins the most votes on the night does not become the prime minister if they cannot form a majority coalition comprising at least 61 seats in parliament.

    They have several weeks to try to do this after the election - and if they cannot manage it, the president can nominate another candidate for prime minister (in 2009, Mr Netanyahu's Likud party came second but he ended up re-appointed as PM). In April's election, Mr Netanyahu won the most votes but failed to form a coalition, which is he why he called a snap poll for 17 September.

    Voters don't care about what you might expect
    Polls show that the cost of living is more of a priority to Israelis than solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Security is also high on their agenda.

    Perhaps surprisingly to outsiders, corruption allegations against Prime Minister Netanyahu, who could be charged in the near future, are not particularly bothering voters, especially anyone right of centre.

    Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
    However, the fear (notably among left-wing voters) that Israeli democracy is under threat has grown amid concerns over expectations that Mr Netanyahu will seek coalition agreement about legislation providing immunity from prosecution while he is in office and planned reforms that would allow governments to overrule Supreme Court rulings (seen by critics as another way to keep Mr Netanyahu safe).

    One major issue which cuts across right-left political boundaries is that of conscripting more ultra-Orthodox Jews - who are currently exempted from the draft - into the military.

    Failure to agree on this was among factors that led to the collapse of Mr Netanyahu's coalition in December 2018, triggering April's election. The same issue also brought an end to the negotiations to form a new coalition, precipitating this poll.

    Keep your eye on these two
    Aside from Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz, there are two other key figures who could make a big difference to what happens next.

    Image copyrightAFP/REUTERS
    Avigdor Lieberman - An ally-turned-rival of the prime minister, Mr Lieberman leads the right-wing secular Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party.

    His withdrawal from Mr Netanyahu's coalition in November 2018 (he considered the PM too weak in dealing with militants in Gaza) left the prime minister with a majority of one. The following month, the coalition collapsed. If his party performs as well as polls predict, Mr Lieberman could hold the balance of power.

    However, he has said the only way he will help return Mr Netanyahu to office is if he agrees to a government of national unity and shares power with Benny Gantz's Blue and White party - something the prime minister has ruled out.

    Ayelet Shaked - Mr Netanyahu's former justice minister is the leader of the religious nationalist Yamina (Rightwards) alliance. The grouping's performance will be crucial to Mr Netanyahu's ability to put together a governing coalition.

    Although Ms Shaked is also a rival of Mr Netanyahu, she has said she will support him in forming a right-wing government. Whether this will be sufficient to remove Yisrael Beiteinu's ability to make or break a Netanyahu-led coalition remains to be seen.

    Politically hard-right, Ayelet Shaked advocates annexing those parts of the occupied West Bank placed under interim Israeli control in past peace deals with the Palestinians, and says that if Mr Netanyahu forms the next ruling coalition, she will make sure he follows through on his pledge to do it.

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    Israel election a referendum on Netanyahu
    By Jeremy Bowen
    BBC Middle East editor
    16 September 2019
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    Image copyrightAFP
    Image caption
    Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel's longest-serving prime minister
    Everything is very close in this troubled land. It's small. Travelling around and across land that has been fought over doesn't take long. Enemies, resentment, hopes and disappointment are never far away.

    I took a drive down the Jordan Valley. It runs between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, mostly sandy and rocky desert. It is the deepest valley in the world, going down to 1,300 feet (400m) below sea level. The domes of the monastery of the Temptation, built into the cliffs stare down on Jericho, the Palestinian city that claims to be the oldest in the world. Christians believe Satan appeared somewhere near here to Jesus, tempting him during his 40 days and nights of fasting.

    The southern end of the valley, where I am, has been occupied by Israel since 1967, a big part of the land it captured in that year's Middle East War

    Usually the valley is a sleepy place. But Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed it into his country's general election, which is coming up this Tuesday. He declared that if he was returned as prime minister, he would annex the Jordan Valley, and Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. The suggestion has been condemned by many of Israel's friends, including Britain, on the grounds that it would be yet another nail in the coffin containing hopes for peace. Israel would have absorbed land Palestinians want for a state.

    Mr Netanyahu has said similar things before. Perhaps he won't keep his promise if he wins. Perhaps he will.

    He's offering Israeli right-wingers a tasty electoral inducement to vote for him. He needs the votes. The election will be close.

    More than anything else, it is a referendum on Mr Netanyahu, who has overtaken Israel's founding father David Ben Gurion as its longest-serving prime minister.

    Israel: A quick guide
    Can Jewish settlement issue be resolved?
    Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu: Commando turned PM
    In Jerusalem, I went to an ultra-Orthodox rally. I headed for one of the religious neighbourhoods of the city. Thousands of men in black coats and hats, beards and skullcaps jammed into a closed-off major city highway. They were there to declare support for a coalition of religious parties, who are staunch supporters of Mr Netanyahu. He needs their support to form a new government.

    Israel's electoral system always produces coalitions. Would-be prime ministers need to add their own party's seats to those of smaller parties who exact a price for giving their support. The ultra-Orthodox have been staunch supporters of Mr Netanyahu. Without their seats, he would not be able to form a government.

    Israel is a strong country. Its achievements are remarkable. But it also has a streak of insecurity, understandable given the history of the Jews and of the Israeli state. Mr Netanyahu plays on those fears. His campaign has majored on Israel's enemies in Iran, Syria and Lebanon.

    His message, repeated time after time, is that the Middle East is a tough neighbourhood and he is the only politician who can keep Israelis safe. Election posters show him with US President Donald Trump, both men smiling, suggesting a unique partnership that only Mr Netanyahu can maintain.

    His main rival is a centre-left coalition, called Blue and White, led by a retired general, Benny Gantz, and Yair Lapid, a TV personality turned politician. General Gantz says he can restore honour to the premiership. Mr Netanyahu faces serious corruption charges, which he denies. His opponents say he has divided and cheapened Israel.

    On polling day, it might come down to turnout. Israelis get election days off - and it's perfect beach weather.

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