- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 17, 2019

JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel heads to the polls on Tuesday for the second time this year.

While many of the key issues and players remain largely unchanged, a number of new alliances and leaders have emerged.

Just over 30 parties are running, down from April’s vote, but only a dozen or so are expected to win the minimum of 3.25% of the total votes cast needed to enter the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Voter turnout is projected to be lower than average; in April it was 68.5%, low by historic standards.

No party has ever won an absolute majority in the 120-seat Knesset. The larger parties must cobble together alliances with smaller factions to create a governing majority coalition. After the election, the president will task a party leader with building a coalition.

The election was triggered after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a government following April’s vote. Rather than give another party that opportunity, his Likud party voted to dissolve parliament and forced unprecedented repeat elections.



Here’s a look at the main parties and blocs:

LONG-RULING LIKUD

The conservative Likud party has dominated Israeli politics for most of the past 40 years, with Netanyahu as prime minister the past decade.

Its election campaign focused heavily on Netanyahu’s leadership and close relationships with world leaders, most importantly President Donald Trump.

The prime minister has also waged a scare campaign that critics say demonizes the country’s Arab minority and accuses his opponents of conspiring with Arab politicians to “steal” the election.

Netanyahu has traditionally allied himself with Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and religious nationalist parties to form governing coalitions. To garner support from the nationalist right, Netanyahu has promised to take steps toward annexing Israel’s West Bank settlements.

Israel’s attorney general has recommended indicting Netanyahu in three corruption cases, following a hearing just weeks after the election. Nonetheless, the Likud is expected to finish strong.

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STUCK IN THE MIDDLE

After drawing even with Likud in April, with 35 seats apiece, the Blue and White party, headed by former army chief Benny Gantz, remains Netanyahu’s main rival.

The party, led by a former TV host and two other retired military chiefs, have focused their campaign on Netanyahu’s legal woes and questioned his character.

It has called for a “secular unity government” to rule the country after the election. The party shares similar views to the Likud when it comes to a tough stance against Iran and Palestinian militant groups. But it says it will not sit with Likud if Netanyahu remains leader.

Even if Blue and White bests Likud, it will have a difficult time patching together a governing coalition due to divisions within Israel’s center-left camp.

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A UNITED RIGHT

In April’s vote, the justice and education ministers at the time, Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett, broke away from their Jewish Home party to run independently. The gambit backfired,and they fell short of the votes needed to enter parliament.

This time, Shaked has brighter prospects as the head of an amalgam of pro-settlement, religious and nationalist factions called “Yemina.”

She has vowed to ally her party with Netanyahu and has supported granting the prime minister immunity from prosecution if he’s charged.

Even further to the right, Jewish Power, a small ultranationalist party, is polling on the cusp of entering the Knesset.

Jewish Power’s leaders are successors of the late rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated the expulsion of Palestinians and a Jewish theocracy.

Kahane’s Kach party was banned from parliament for racism in the 1980s, and the U.S. has classified his Jewish Defense League a terrorist group. Kahane was assassinated in New York by an Egyptian-American assailant in 1990.

Netanyahu, who struck a deal with Jewish Power in April, this time is trying to take away its votes to boost support for Likud.

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A FRACTURED LEFT

The venerable Labor Party, which dominated Israeli politics in its early decades, plummeted to just six seats in April’s vote.

It sacked its leader, put former chairman Amir Peretz back at the helm and joined forces with the small Gesher party, focused on social and economic issues.

Other Labor members jumped ship and teamed up with the liberal Meretz party and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in a party rebranded as the Democratic Union.

Both parties have said they will not join a Netanyahu-led government.

But Labor remains weak in the polls and may not win enough support to enter parliament.

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THE MAN FROM MOLDOVA

Netanyahu’s nemesis, Avigdor Lieberman, holds considerable power after his Yisrael Beitenu thwarted the formation of a Likud-led government in April. Once again, he is the kingmaker.

Netanyahu has tried to woo Lieberman’s supporters with ads and rallies in Russian. Lieberman, a former Netanyahu protege, has hit back with ads portraying the prime minister as weak.

Polls forecast that Yisrael Beitenu, a secular ultranationalist party largely supported by Lieberman’s fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union, will grow.

If polls are accurate, it could be difficult for Netanyahu or Gantz to secure a parliamentary majority without Lieberman’s support.

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REUNITED ARABS

Israel’s Arab parties, which represent the country’s 20% minority, ran separately in April, a decision that contributed to low turnout. For this election, the parties have mended fences and will run as a single faction.

In 2015, the Joint List of Arab factions won a record 13 seats as a united front; running independently the four parties won just 10. Their re-merger is expected to draw greater support.

Arab voter turnout was low in April, just under 50%. Many say that an election day plot by Likud activists to film voters at polling stations in Arab towns, seen as an attempt at intimidation, contributed to the poor turnout.

Making unfounded accusations of voter fraud, Netanyahu tried but failed to pass a law that would allow cameras at voting stations. His comments, saying the Arabs are trying to “steal” the elections, have drawn accusations of racism.

A substantial Arab turnout could hurt Netanyahu’s hopes for another term.

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