Israelis vote in third election in a year focused on Netanyahu

JERUSALEM: The Israelis voted on Monday in the third unprecedented election of the country in less than a year to decide whether Prime Minister Benjamin, who has been staying for a long time, remains in power despite his next criminal trial on corruption charges.

Netanyahu, the oldest leader in the history of Israel, has been the interim prime minister for more than a year, since a divided Israel has resisted two inconclusive elections and a prolonged political paralysis. With opinion polls forecasting another stalemate, Netanyahu is looking for a late increase in support for a parliamentary majority along with other nationalist parties that grant him a fourth consecutive term, and the fifth overall.

He faces a tough challenge once again from the retired military chief, whose Blue and White centrist party is running even with the Netanyahu Likud in a campaign message that the Israeli prime minister is not in a position to lead because of the serious charges against him.

Both sides seem unable to form a coalition with their traditional allies. With the prospect of a unity government among them seemingly off the table after a particularly unpleasant campaign, Monday's vote may well become a preamble to another election.

`` I hope that today marks the beginning of a healing process, where we can start living together again, '' Gantz said by voting in his hometown of Rosh Ha'ayin in central Israel, warning voters not to `` Let yourself be swept away by lies or violence '' after the tough election campaign.

There was little fanfare in the days before the vote, with a notable absence of campaign posters in the streets and public demonstrations that are generally characterized by the period before the Israeli elections. With electoral fatigue clearly a factor, participation could be decisive. Election Day is a national holiday in Israel and the country generally has one of the highest votes among Western democracies. But the second repeated vote and fears of the new, which so far has been largely under control, seem to hamper participation.

Israel established about 15 stations to allow the vote of hundreds of Israelis who were ordered to remain in home quarantine after a possible exposure to the virus.

Netanyahu has tried to portray himself as a statesman who is especially qualified to lead the country in difficult times. Gantz has tried to paint Netanyahu as a divisive and plagued by scandals, offering himself as a calming influence and an honest alternative.

Gantz says he favors a government of national unity with the Likud, but only if he gets rid of his lifelong leader due to corruption charges against him. Netanyahu, who still enjoys broad support in his party, insists that he must remain prime minister in any unity agreement.

With his career at stake, Netanyahu has made a furious campaign. It has taken a hard turn to the right in the hope of gathering its nationalist base, promising to expand and annex the West Bank settlements. In a campaign that has been marked by ugly smears, the substitutes for Netanyahu have spread unfounded accusations that claim that Gantz is corrupt, unstable and susceptible to blackmail by Iran.

The most recent attempt seems to have failed. Recordings have revealed that Netanyahu lied on live television about not being involved in a plot to secretly record a Gantz consultant belittling his boss. Channel 12 broadcast audio on Sunday night from Netanyahu talking to the rabbi who secretly recorded Gantz's advisor and discussing when it would leak to the media.

Netanyahu is desperate to get a narrow majority of 61 seats in parliament with his hard-line religious and nationalist allies before going to trial two weeks later. Netanyahu has not secured the immunity of prosecution, but with strong control of power he could seek other ways to derail the legal proceedings against him.

Netanyahu goes to trial on March 17 on charges of bribery, fraud and abuse of trust arising from accusations that he accepted gifts from billionaire friends and promised to promote advantageous legislation for an important newspaper in exchange for favorable coverage. He swore he will prove his innocence in court.

Opinion polls predict results similar to those of the two previous stagnations, and the stalemate raises the possibility of a fourth election in rapid succession.

Hipster politician Avigdor Lieberman once again it is emerging as a potential king-maker, without Netanyahu or Gantz being able to secure a parliamentary majority without their support. Lieberman has not committed to any of the candidates, although he has promised that there will not be a fourth election.

The polling stations opened across the country at 7 a.m. Monday and polls are expected to come out at the end of the voting day at 10 p.m. (20:00 GMT) The official results are expected to arrive overnight.

That is when the real competition can begin, with the attention directed to the president Reuven Rivlin who is responsible for choosing a candidate for prime minister. He is supposed to select the leader he believes has the best chance of forming a stable coalition. Honor usually goes to the head of the biggest party, but not necessarily. Just as important is the number of legislators outside their own party who recommend it to the president.

Rivlin's team will have up to six weeks to form a coalition. If it fails, another candidate has 28 days to form an alternative coalition. If that effort fails, new elections would be forced. It is a procedural process that remained hypothetical during the first 70 years of Israel's existence until it developed after the last elections in September. If the results match the current opinion polls, and all the major players stick to the promises of the campaign, it is very possible that it will be repeated.

`` This is usually a holiday, but to be honest, I have no holiday in me, just a feeling of deep shame before you, the citizens of Israel, '' Rivlin said while casting his vote. `` We don't deserve this. We don't deserve another horrible and dirty campaign like the one that ends today and we don't deserve this endless instability. We deserve a government that works for us. ''