- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 9, 2019

JERUSALEM — Polls opened across Israel Tuesday in an election widely seen as a referendum on long-time conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is struggling to win a fourth consecutive term amid corruption accusations and a strong challenge from former military chief Benjamin “Benny” Gantz.

The country and its media have been on edge since Friday when final opinion polls projected the contest will come down to the wire between Mr. Netanyahu — a close ally of President Trump — and Mr. Gantz, whose centrist Blue and White party is expected to win a significant chunk of seats in the 120-seat parliament known as the Knesset.

With roughly 6 million Israelis eligible to vote, some 10,000 polling stations were reported to be functioning smoothly Tuesday morning, hours after Mr. Netanyahu made headlines by appearing late Monday night at Jerusalem’s Western Wall to pray.

Earlier Monday, the prime minister had told supporters at a rally in the city’s historic Mahaneh Yehuda market that his Likud Party could be in trouble.

“A few of our people are complacent,” he said. “They say that everything is fine, it’s in the bag.”

But it’s not, Mr. Netanyahu warned, asserting that Mr. Gantz and his Blue and White running mate Yair Lapid “are leading.”

Analysts characterized the moment as a last-minute plea.

“The fact that he came out saying he thinks he might lose was to stir up complacent Likud voters,” said Shmuel Sandler, an expert on Israeli politics with the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.

“It was to warn that left-wing voters are more committed than right-wing voters because he’s afraid his supporters are going to say, ‘we don’t have to vote,’ ” Mr. Sandler told The Washington Times.

Mr. Netanyahu, 69, also spent the final days of the campaign pandering to a bloc of smaller, far-right parties that Likud may need to form a coalition with to retain power. The 59-year-old Mr. Gantz, meanwhile, hurled invective at the prime minister, telling voters that such a coalition would amount to a government of “extremism” in Israel.

While the issue of Israeli-Palestinian relations was largely been avoided on the campaign trail, it became a centerpiece down the stretch, with Mr. Netanyahu saying he’d support an annexation of controversial Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank — a position long-advocated by far-right parties in the Knesset and decried by Palestinian leaders.

For his part, Mr. Gantz refused to stake out a hard position on the matter but suggested Blue and White wouldn’t support any unilateral move to wield sovereignty over West Bank settlements. He also claimed Mr. Netanyahu was engaging in reckless theatrics to stir up right-wing voters.

“Releasing a strategic and historic decision in an election campaign bubble is not serious, [it is] irresponsible,” Mr. Gantz said in an interview with the Israeli news website Ynet. “Why not ask how it is that for 13 years Netanyahu could have annexed and didn’t?”

The Trump administration, which is slated in the coming weeks or months to roll out a major new plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, is watching the vote closely. While Mr. Trump is seen as a personal friend and political ally of Mr. Netanyahu, the president has stayed neutral on the election, telling an audience of Jewish Republicans in Las Vegas over the weekend that both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz are “good people.”

Away from the Israeli-Palestinian issue, a major focus of the campaign has centered on getting younger Israelis to vote. With more than 40 percent of Israelis under the age of 25, issues such as traffic congestion, apartment prices and marijuana legalization — something Mr. Netanyahu, himself, has said he’ll consider if he wins — have often taken center stage.

Local news outlets have had a field day with the marijuana issue, with reports regularly describing thick pot smoke in the air at rallies, including among some held by right-wing candidates.

The left-leaning newspaper Haaretz ran with a headline Tuesday that said: “Israeli Election’s Dangerous Surprise: Pro-pot Jewish Evangelist Who Wants a Holy War.”

It was a reference far-right candidate Moshe Feiglin, who’s advocating for marijuana legalization.

Polls are set to close at 10 p.m. local time Tuesday, although a clear outcome of the election may not emerge for days or weeks because of the notoriously fractured coalition process that undergirds Israeli power politics.

The prime ministership is determined by whoever holds a majority in the Knesset. With no single party having ever won a majority on its own, and neither Likud nor Blue and White likely to do so Tuesday, the coalition dance is what ultimately matters.

Pre-election opinion polls have predicted Likud and a bloc of smaller right-wing parties will end up with more than 60 seats. But analysts say its a toss-up.

“I don’t trust the polls because in the last election, they were very wrong,” Mr. Sandler said. “Any prediction now would be irresponsible.”

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