Pugnacious Netanyahu fights for survival as Israelis vote
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was locked in a fight for his political survival on Tuesday as Israelis voted in an election that opinion polls predict he could lose to his centre-left opponents. After a bitterly contested campaign, the election has turned into a referendum on 'Bibi' Netanyahu, 65, who has been in power for a total of nine years spread over three terms. Netanyahu took extraordinary steps to drum up support from right-wing voters, reversing policy on the eve of the election with an announcement that he would never allow a Palestinian state.
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was locked in a fight for his political survival on Tuesday as Israelis voted in an election that opinion polls predict he could lose to his centre-left opponents.
After a bitterly contested campaign, the election has turned into a referendum on "Bibi" Netanyahu, 65, who has been in power for a total of nine years spread over three terms.
Netanyahu took extraordinary steps to drum up support from right-wing voters, reversing policy on the eve of the election with an announcement that he would never allow a Palestinian state. On election day he accused left-wing groups of trying to remove him from power by busing Arab Israeli voters to polling stations, a statement that drew a sharp rebuke from Washington.
If he loses narrowly, Netanyahu is still better placed than the opposition Zionist Union to cobble together a coalition, which means he could still remain in power, on track to become Israel's longest-serving prime minister.
But if he loses by a wide margin, he could be finished, replaced by centre-left leader Isaac Herzog, who ran a resilient campaign to surge into the lead in late polls.
A fourth Netanyahu term would probably also prolong his prickly relationship with Israel's main ally, the United States, at least as long as Barack Obama is in the White House.
Netanyahu has focused on the threat from Iran's nuclear programme and militant Islam. But many Israelis say they are tiring of the message, and the centre-left's campaign on social and economic issues, especially the high cost of housing and everyday living in Israel, appears to have won support.
In a possible sign of edginess, Netanyahu took to Facebook to denounce what he said was an effort by left-wing non-profit groups to get Arab-Israelis out to sway the election against him. "The right-wing government is in danger," he wrote. "Arab voters are going to vote in droves. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses."
That drew a rebuke from Washington, where the Obama administration is already angry with Netanyahu for delivering a speech to Congress opposing its nuclear talks with Iran.
"We’re always concerned, broadly speaking, about any statements that may be aimed at marginalising certain communities,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
A former leader of Israel's Labour Party, Shelly Yachimovich, even accused Netanyahu of racism over the remarks about Arab voters, who are likely to play a bigger role than in the past after their main parties united to form a single bloc.
When the last opinion polls were published on March 13, the Zionist Union led by Herzog held a four-seat lead over Netanyahu's right-wing Likud.
But in the last days of campaigning, Netanyahu has fought to shore up his Likud base and lure voters from other right-wing, nationalist parties, promising more building of Jewish settlements and saying the Palestinians would not get their own state if he were re-elected.
Those sweeping promises, if carried out, would further isolate Israel from the United States and the European Union, which believe a peace deal must accommodate Palestinian demands for a state in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
But they may go some way towards persuading right-wing voters to stick with Netanyahu's Likud party, rather than another group on the right.
Surveys show around 15 percent of voters are undecided, meaning the result could swing widely. Opinion polls have rarely been good predictors of Israeli elections in the past.
When Netanyahu called the election in December, two years early, he looked set for an easy victory. But in the final weeks there has been a sense that change could be in the air. Some voters have talked of Netanyahu fatigue.
By 8 pm (1600 GMT), turnout was running at 66 percent, higher than the last election in 2013. Voting ends at 10 pm, with the first exit polls published immediately afterwards.
No party has ever won an outright majority in Israel's 67-year history. Coalition-building is an unpredictable game, with any number of allegiances possible among the 10 or 11 parties expected to win a place in the 120-seat Knesset.
The party invited to try to form a government has up to 42 days to negotiate a coalition. It may be mid-May at the earliest before Israel has a new government.
Since there are more parties on the right and far-right, Netanyahu would have the advantage in coalition building if the Zionist Union wins by only a small margin. But if the centre-left wins by four or more seats, it should get the nod first to try to form a government.
Herzog, who has overcome criticism of his slight stature and reedy voice to lead a strong campaign, voted in Tel Aviv, where he emphasised that the election was about a new direction.
"Whoever wants to continue the way of Bibi - despair and disappointment - can vote for him," he said. "But whoever wants change, hope, and really a better future for Israel, vote for the Zionist Union under my leadership."
The son of a former president and the grandson of an eminent rabbi, Herzog, 54, is as close as it gets to having Kennedy-style heritage in Israel. While his leadership has been criticised in the past, he has shown wit and intellect on the campaign trail, bolstering his image among voters.
Three or four parties are likely to decide how the balance of power tips in the coalition building.
Moshe Kahlon, the leader of Kulanu, a centrist party that broke away from Likud, is seen as perhaps the most important "kingmaker". A former communications minister credited with bringing down mobile phone prices, Kahlon could ally with either Netanyahu or Herzog, bringing up to 10 seats with him.
One of the party's candidates, Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, has said that whoever wins must try to repair relations with Washington.
Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, could also ally with either side, bringing 12-14 seats. But he does not sit comfortably with religious parties, making him less flexible in coalition talks.
If the centre-left is to assemble a coalition, it will also need the support of ultra-Orthodox parties, which are expected to win around 13 seats.
Another factor is the parties from Israel's 20 percent Arab minority, which for the first time have united under one list and are expected to win around 13 seats as well. While they are unlikely to join a centre-left coalition, they could give it tacit support and create a block against Netanyahu.
(Additional reporting Dan Williams and Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by David Stamp)
This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.
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