TEL AVIV • A prime minister who has become the first head of government in the country's history to be indicted in office may appear to be headed for electoral defeat.
But according to final polls ahead of Israel's general election today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's support has held steady since the last vote in September, despite him having been formally charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in January.
Former military chief Benny Gantz, the leader of the main challenger Blue and White alliance, has tried to make Mr Netanyahu's upcoming trial a central issue in his campaign, warning Israelis that the latter's legal woes will distract him from the national interest.
But that message may have failed to influence voters, with both Mr Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and the Blue and White projected to fall short of forming a government - the same result as the inconclusive April and September polls.
At Mr Gantz's closing rally in Tel Aviv, his focus was squarely on turnout, as he urged the crowd to broadcast on Facebook Live, hoping to expand the network of people tuned in to his speech. "Get out and vote!" the Blue and White leader said.
Research shows that Israeli voters, including Netanyahu supporters, care about the criminal allegations against him, said the president of the Israeli Democracy Institute think-tank, Mr Yohanan Plesner.
"The numbers indicate that about a third of those who self-identify as right-wing voters are very uncomfortable, or think it is impossible, for someone to continue to serve as a prime minister after being indicted," he said.
But that "does not necessarily mean that they are going to change their voting patterns", he added, explaining that personal affinity for the Prime Minister and his policies may prove paramount.
Mr Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving premier, will stand trial from March 17 on charges of receiving improper gifts and offering a media mogul lucrative regulatory changes in exchange for favourable coverage.
Mr Plesner explained that 70 per cent of Likud supporters have simply rejected the indictments as baseless and "politically motivated". That position is "ludicrous", he said, but noted that Mr Netanyahu had skilfully managed to persuade some that he was engaged in legitimate political "wheeling and dealing", not corruption.
At the Gantz rally in Tel Aviv, long-time Netanyahu supporter Avi Regev, who switched sides and became a Blue and White activist, said Mr Netanyahu had pivoted from being focused on Israel's priorities to being consumed by his personal concerns, now including his corruption trial.
If polls are accurate and few voters have broken with the Prime Minister over the indictments, most experts agree that turnout will be decisive.
Turnout unexpectedly increased by 1.5 points to 70 per cent in September compared with April, defying predictions that apathy would compel some to stay home.
Officials have warned that fears of coronavirus transmission in densely packed polling stations could impact voter participation.
As he sought to sway voters yesterday, Mr Netanyahu pledged to annex key parts of the occupied West Bank within weeks if re-elected.
In an interview with Israeli public radio, he said annexation of the strategically crucial Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank was his top priority among "four major immediate missions".
"That will happen within weeks, two months at the most, I hope," he said in the interview.
United States President Donald Trump's widely criticised Middle East peace plan, unveiled in late January, gave the Jewish state the green light to annex the Jordan Valley and proposed a committee to set out the exact borders of the territory in question.
Mr Netanyahu said "the joint US-Israeli mapping committee started work a week ago".
But former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party and may again be in the position of kingmaker after the vote, accused Mr Netanyahu of engaging in empty political rhetoric.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
To the polls yet again
Israelis head to the polls today with a sense of deja vu after trying and failing twice in the past year to break the country's political deadlock.
1. WHY SO MANY ELECTIONS?
In late 2018, Mr Benjamin Netanyahu, veteran leader of right-wing Likud Party, seemed to be at the peak of his powers. The dominant political figure of his generation, Mr Netanyahu was about to become Israel's longest-serving prime minister. But he had a precarious one-seat majority in Parliament, and called a snap election for April 9 last year. The immediate reason given was the vulnerability of his ruling coalition after the resignation of Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman. More hawkish than even Mr Netanyahu, Mr Lieberman quit, accusing the Prime Minister of being too soft on Palestinian militants in Gaza.
But many Israelis saw it as a ploy by Mr Netanyahu to gain a renewed public mandate to ward off prosecutors who were then in the final stages of drafting charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust against him. Once re-elected, the theory went, Mr Netanyahu could say an indictment was not in the nation's interest. He denies wrongdoing, accusing his enemies of a witch-hunt.
2. WHAT WENT WRONG?
If that was the plan, it backfired. No single party in Israel has ever won an outright majority in Parliament, and Mr Netanyahu failed to get enough seats. He struggled for weeks to put together a government. Then, rather than let his principal rival - former armed forces chief Benny Gantz - have a chance to form a government, Mr Netanyahu triggered another election, on Sept 17.
3. WHAT HAPPENED IN ELECTION NUMBER TWO?
Again Mr Netanyahu fell short. Likud and Mr Gantz's centrist Blue and White alliance ended in a virtual tie.
That left Mr Lieberman a kingmaker. But he cited policy differences with both men to avoid anointing either.
After months of horse-trading in which Mr Netanyahu and Mr Gantz both failed to win enough support, the outcome - much to the dismay of the jaded Israeli electorate - was today's election.
4. WILL THIS BE ANY DIFFERENT?
Yes. Since the previous election, formal criminal charges have been filed against Mr Netanyahu. His trial is due to open on March 17, just two weeks after the election.
Also, both previous elections were fought without the electorate knowing the contents of United States President Donald Trump's long-delayed Middle East peace plan. That was published in January, and would grant US recognition to Israel's settlements in the occupied West Bank. Palestinians were furious, saying it gives away land they seek for a future state. Mr Netanyahu pledged to annex the settlements after the election.
5. COULD NETANYAHU WIN THIS TIME?
Yes. But he will need to win support from other parties if he is to form a coalition government with at least 61 of Parliament's 120 seats. The court hearings will prompt rivals to demand that he resign, even before sentencing.
A verdict is likely to be months away, and the appeals process could take years.