Israel ballot: round five in Netanyahu’s fight for survival

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FILE PHOTO: Ceremony to appreciate the health sector for their contribution to the fight against COVID-19, in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – On Nov. 1 Israel holds an unprecedented fifth election in less than four years with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu vying for a comeback.

Caught in an election cycle since 2019, the same year in which Netanyahu was indicted for corruption on charges he denies, voters hope to break the deadlock between the most dominant politician of his generation and his many rivals.

WILL NETANYAHU WIN?

Unclear. Surveys show no sweeping victory for Netanyahu or for his main rival, centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, though stagnating in the polls, is predicted to emerge as the largest in parliament. Along with allied far-right and ultra-religious factions supporting him for premier, the hawkish Netanyahu, 73, appears on the cusp of a ruling parliamentary majority.

In the last four votes, however, Netanyahu failed to lock down the rightist coalition he sought.

WHO ELSE IS IN THE RACE?

Lapid, 58, is a former TV host and finance minister who entered politics on the wings of a social-economic protest movement about a decade ago. His “There is a Future” party, second in the polls, has shown some upward momentum. But his camp of allied parties spanning right to left is smaller than Netanyahu’s bloc.

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Defence Minister Benny Gantz heads the centre-right “National Unity”, predicted to win far fewer seats than Netanyahu and Lapid’s parties. But that has not stopped former military chief Gantz, 63, from proclaiming himself the only candidate who can break the Netanyahu deadlock by forming new alliances and heading a broad government that will extract Israel from four years of unprecedented constitutional crisis.

WHO ELSE MATTERS?

Itamar Ben-Gvir. An ultranationalist lawmaker who may be Netanyahu’s kingmaker and test Israel’s foreign relations if made a minister. Convicted in 2007 of racist incitement and support for a group on both the Israeli and U.S. terrorist blacklists, Ben-Gvir, 46, says he has since matured. A joint ticket of Ben-Gvir’s far-right “Jewish Power” party and other factions is predicted to come in third and his growing popularity has caused some alarm at home and abroad.

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Israel’s Arab minority, whose vote can tip the election. About a fifth of the population and under-represented in parliament, many in the community identify with or as Palestinians. They have long lamented discrimination and treatment as second class citizens. A low turnout could remove an obstacle to Netanyahu and hand him a clear victory. A high turnout may help Lapid – whose outgoing coalition included an Arab party for the fist time in Israel’s history.

WHY ANOTHER ELECTION?

Lapid and his coalition partner Naftali Bennett ended Netanyahu’s record 12-year consecutive reign in June 2021, by patching together an unlikely group of rightist, liberal and Arab parties which was fragile from the start. Less than one year into its rule, the coalition lost its razor-thin majority to defections. Rather than wait for the opposition to vote them out, the government dissolved parliament, triggering an election.

WHAT IS THIS ROUND ABOUT?

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Netanyahu. While his indictment on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges has united rivals against him, his loyal base of supporters has been unwavering, clamouring for the comeback of a leader seen as strong and savvy with international clout. Netanyahu’s critics loathe the idea of a man they see as corrupt and destructive returning to the helm, where they fear he will bend Israel’s legal system to avoid conviction.

Netanyahu has been touting his security and economic credentials. But with dim prospects of peace talks with the Palestinians restarting any time soon, and world powers’ nuclear talks with Iran faltering – security and diplomacy have been largely swept aside. According to surveys, soaring living costs are a top concern for Israelis, but with little difference in candidates’ policy, such issues are unlikely to sway voters either way.

(This story has been corrected to fix name of Gantz’s party in paragraph 7)

(Writing by Maayan Lubell, Editing by William Maclean)

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