By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu battled for his political survival in the final hours of a close-run election on Tuesday, urging voters to support him to avert a “disaster”.
His voice hoarse from weeks of campaigning, the veteran leader took to the streets and social media, at one point using a megaphone in Jerusalem’s bus station, to urge voters to extend his unbroken decade in power.
Opinion polls put former armed forces chief Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party neck-and-neck with Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud, and suggest the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party could emerge as kingmaker in coalition talks.
Prohibited by law from campaigning on mainstream media, party leaders took to social networks to mobilize support.
Describing a possible outcome if his supporters did not vote for him, Netanyahu wrote on Twitter: “High voting percentage in left-wing strongholds. Voting percentages low in right-wing strongholds. Disaster!”
Without their support, “we will get a left-wing government with Arab parties,” he wrote.
Gantz posted a video of himself leaning out a car window in traffic during a random encounter with a supportive commuter. Gantz’s co-leader, Yair Lapid, urged left-leaning constituents to come out and vote and said “Bibi is lying,” using Netanyahu nickname.
The two main parties’ campaigns in Israel’s second parliamentary election in five months pointed to only narrow differences on many important issues: the regional struggle against Iran, the Palestinian conflict, ties with the United States, and the economy.
An end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to lead to a big change in policy on hotly disputed issues in the peace process with the Palestinians that collapsed five years ago.
Netanyahu has announced his intention to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, where the Palestinians seek statehood. But Blue and White have also said it would strengthen Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, with the Jordan Valley as Israel’s “eastern security border”. The Palestinians and many countries consider the settlements to be illegal.
The election was called after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition following an April election in which Likud and Blue and White were tied, each taking 35 of the 120 seats in the Knesset or parliament. It is the first time Israel has had two general elections in a single year.
Netanyahu, 69, has cast himself as indispensable and blighted by voter complacency over his tenure – the longest of any Israeli prime minister. Prime minister from June 1996 until July 1999, he has held the post since March 2009 and is seeking a record fifth term.
SEEKING “EVERY EXTRA VOTE”
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) and will close at 10 p.m. when Israeli media will publish exit polls giving a first indication of the outcome.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz, 60, have tried to energize their bases, and poach votes from smaller parties.
Netanyahu portrays Gantz as inexperienced and incapable of commanding respect from world leaders such as U.S. President Donald Trump. Gantz accuses Netanyahu of trying to deflect attention from his possible indictment on corruption charges that the prime minister has dismissed as baseless.
Hagit Cohen, a 43-year-old social worker, said she would back Blue and White rather than her former favorite, the now fringe Labour party: “I don’t want my vote to be wasted. Gantz may not be perfect, but enough is enough with Bibi (Netanyahu).”
“There is a definite sense of fatigue. Many Israelis are fed up with the politicians, or expect more of the same,” said Amotz Asa-El, research fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute.
Netanyahu “knows that he needs every extra vote,” he said.
In April, there was controversy when election monitors from Netanyahu’s Likud party turned up with cameras in Arab areas. Locals accused them of voter intimidation. Likud said they were trying to prevent election fraud.
Except for a few isolated events where police removed individuals from polling stations, the day progressed without major incident.
RELATIONS WITH WASHINGTON
Before the last election, Trump gave Netanyahu a boost with U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. This time, the White House seems more preoccupied with Iran.
The Trump administration plans soon to release an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that may prove a dead letter: The Palestinians have rejected it in advance as biased.
In Gaza, Palestinians awaited the results of the vote.
“This election affects many things in our life,” said Mohamad Abdul Hay Hasaneen, a janitor in the city of Khan Younis. “There might be limited escalations after the election, but I don’t think this would result in a full war.”
Netanyahu’s open door in Washington and other world capitals, at a combustible time on Israel’s borders with Syria, Gaza, and Lebanon, remains a big draw domestically.
“There’s no one else running who is worthy of being prime minister,” said Alon Gal, a 53-year-old hi-tech manager. “With him, at least I know who I am dealing with.”
Weeks of wrangling over who should be tasked with forming the next government could follow the election. Opinion polls indicate Yisrael Beiteinu could hold the key to the next coalition because it is forecast to double its representation in the Knesset, from five seats to 10.
(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub, Ari Rabinovitch and Stephen Farrell, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Giles Elgood)