Arab turnout will be a major issue as Israel decides Benjamin Netanyahu’s fate

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Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote with his wife Sara during Israel’s parliamentary elections in Jerusalem, Tuesday, April 9, 2019 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, Pool)

Israeli voters decided Tuesday whether to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu another term in office in a tight election that has become a referendum on his decade in power.

Clouded by a series of looming corruption indictments, Netanyahu is seeking a fourth consecutive term and a fifth overall, which would make him Israel’s longest-serving leader, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion.

He faces a stiff challenge from retired military chief Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party has inched ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud in polls. Netanyahu still appears to have the best chance of forming a coalition, though, with a smattering of small nationalist parties backing him.

Gantz voted in his hometown of Rosh Haayin in central Israel alongside his wife, Revital, urging Israelis to “take responsibility” for their democracy.

“Go to vote. Choose whoever you believe in. Respect each other and let us all wake up for a new dawn, a new history,” he said.

Netanyahu cast his ballot in Jerusalem, alongside his wife, Sara, calling voting a “sacred act.”

His tone was subdued, in contrast to his frantic calls to supporters in recent days to turn out. Netanyahu has warned his supporters against being complacent and said his Likud party will lose if turnout is low.

The election has emerged as a referendum on the 69-year-old prime minister and his 13 years in power, with the existential questions facing Israel rarely being discussed in the campaign.

He has been the dominant force in Israeli politics and its best-known face for the past two decades. His campaign has focused heavily on his friendship with President Donald Trump, and his success in cultivating new international allies, such as China, India and Brazil.

But corruption scandals have created some voter fatigue, and in recent days Netanyahu has vowed to annex Jewish West Bank settlements if re-elected — a prospect that could doom already-slim hopes of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which he has wavered on.

“It’s about time for a change,” said Barry Rifkin, a Jerusalem resident.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. and will close at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT, 3 p.m. EDT) . About 6.4 million voters were eligible to vote at more than 10,000 stations.

Some 40 parties are running, but no more than a dozen are expected to receive the required 3.25% support to make it into parliament.

Election day in Israel is a national holiday, with warm and sunny weather expected to boost turnout. By midafternoon, turnout levels were slightly lower than in the last election in 2015.

Official results will begin streaming in early Wednesday, but it may take far longer for a final verdict to come through, given Israel’s fragmented politics.

As many as a half-dozen parties are teetering on the threshold for entering the Knesset, or parliament. A failure by any of these to get in could have a dramatic impact on who ultimately forms the next coalition.

The Israeli government needs a parliamentary majority to rule, and since no party has ever earned more than half of the 120 seats in the Knesset, a coalition is required.

Netanyahu and Gantz have ruled out sitting together in government, so the next prime minister will likely come down to how many supporters each candidate can recruit. Netanyahu appears to have the edge, thanks to the larger number of religious and nationalist parties that are his traditional allies.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin could also play an important role. Though his post is largely ceremonial, the president is responsible for choosing the candidate with the best chance of building a stable coalition government as prime minister.

“The only ones that will determine who will be prime minister, and what the next government will be, are you,” Rivlin told voters as he cast his ballot in Jerusalem.

In the campaign’s final days, Netanyahu has veered to the right and embarked on a media blitz in which he portrayed himself as the underdog, frantically warning that “the right-wing government is in danger.”

His nationalist allies, however, see the move as an attempt to siphon seats from them to bolster the Likud. Netanyahu used similar tactics in 2015, warning on election day that “droves” of Arab voters were turning out. The scare tactics were seen as helping him seal a come-from-behind victory.

By late afternoon Tuesday, there were no major surprises from any parties, although the predominantly Arab Hadash party filed a complaint that hundreds of Likud activists were monitoring Arab polling stations with hidden cameras. Israel’s elections committee quickly issued a ruling banning cameras from polling stations.

Arab parties accused Likud of trying to intimidate voters. Likud officials declined comment, though Netanyahu said there “should be cameras everywhere, not hidden” to ensure a legitimate vote.

Arab turnout will be a major issue.

Netanyahu’s campaign against Arab politicians, together with the new alliance with anti-Arab extremists and the passage of last year’s contentious nation-state law, which enshrined Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people alone, have deepened calls for an election boycott in Arab communities.

But some hope these events will have the opposite effect, fueling enough frustration to increase Arab participation, which is typically lower than that of Israeli Jews. A big Arab turnout could push smaller right-wing parties into the margins and even threaten Netanyahu’s long rule.

The leftist Meretz party even put out a video urging Arabs to vote. “Bibi is counting on you. Because if you don’t vote, Bibi wins,” it said, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

The Palestinian issue has been largely sidelined in the campaign that has been long on scandal and short on substance. But in a reminder, the military says it imposed a 24-hour closure on the West Bank and Gaza throughout election day, based on its security assessments.

Even if he is re-elected, Netanyahu could have a difficult time governing. Some of his allies have indicated they will no longer back him if formal charges are filed.

Israel’s attorney general has recommended indicting him on bribery and breach of trust charges in three separate cases. Rivals have also begun to question a deal in which Netanyahu reportedly earned $4 million on a German submarine sale to Egypt by owning shares in one of the German manufacturer’s suppliers.

Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and claims the accusations are part of a liberal media’s orchestrated witch hunt against him.

Netanyahu has generated much of his popularity from projecting a tough image in the face of Iran’s rising power and for keeping Israel safe and prosperous in a hostile region.

But in Gantz, he has encountered the rare opponent who can match his security credentials. Along with two other former military chiefs on his ticket, Gantz has attacked Netanyahu for failing to halt rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The telegenic Gantz, who has been vague on key policy fronts, has presented himself as a clean, scandal-free alternative to Netanyahu.

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