JERUSALEM: Israelis wearing protective masks vote at one of the special polling station erected for the 5,600 voters under quarantine, many of whom had visited countries where the coronavirus COVID-19 is prevalent, during parliamentary election yesterday. – AFP

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought re-election yesterday under the weight of an imminent corruption trial, with the country’s third ballot in less than a year predicted to end in another deadlock. The election follows inconclusive votes last April and September that dimmed the aura of political invincibility once enjoyed by Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who has denied wrongdoing in the three graft cases against him.

“Today I have no sense of celebration,” President Reuven Rivlin said after voting, voicing the frustration across the country after a seemingly neverending election season. “The feeling I have is not simple, it’s even one of shame, when I face you, the citizens of Israel.” Opinion polls forecast that neither Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud nor the centrist Blue and White party of his main challenger, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz, will win enough votes on their own, or with coalition allies, for a governing majority in parliament.

Israelis can vote until 10 pm, when media can publish the first exit polls and signal whether the deadlock has been broken. More stalemate could push Israel, where a 2020 budget is still pending, further into economic limbo. The candidates were more upbeat than Rivlin, who, as president, will guide any coalition talks in the weeks ahead.

Voting in his hometown outside Tel Aviv, Gantz told reporters: “I really hope that in the coming weeks, following the results, we can put Israel on a new path.” Netanyahu, who voted in Jerusalem, said: “Go vote. It’s a proud day.” He said Israel had taken all precautions needed to control the spread of the coronavirus and added: “People can go and vote with complete confidence.”

Turnout figures will be watched closely, particularly given concern over the global outbreak and accusations of malicious rumors about contamination in areas seen as strongholds for particular parties. By noon, nearly 28% of eligible voters had cast ballots, the highest level at this stage in two decades. Voters under home-quarantine, such as those who have recently travelled back to Israel from coronavirus hot spots, voted at special polling stations wearing face masks and gloves.

‘The defendant’
Israel’s economy has weathered the political turmoil, with growth strong and the labor market tight. But the longer the stalemate continues, the heavier the toll, including the lack of new money for health, education, welfare or infrastructure projects until an annual budget is approved by parliament. Netanyahu, 70, hopes a peace plan that US President Donald Trump presented in January will help him win an unprecedented fifth term though the Palestinians have rejected it. Netanyahu says recognition of Israeli sovereignty over settlements in the occupied West Bank will enable him to annex them within weeks of the election.

But his re-election bid has been complicated since the last election by his indictment on charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud over allegations he granted state favors worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media barons in return for gifts and favorable coverage. The trial is due to begin on March 17, when post-election coalition wheeling and dealing is likely to be in full swing. Gantz calls Netanyahu “the defendant” and has accused him of seeking to retain power to promote legislation that would bar authorities from putting a sitting prime minister on trial.

Netanyahu says Gantz, 60, would need Arab politicians’ support in parliament to form a government and they would tie his hands in any military action in the region. He has portrayed Gantz as a “coward” incapable of confronting the many dangers Israel faces in a tense region and has suggested he is hiding secrets that would open him to blackmail by its foe Iran. The Israeli military said in a statement it had targeted a vehicle in the Syrian-controlled Golan Heights yesterday after an attempted sniper attack from the area. The frontier has been tense throughout Syria’s civil war. – Reuters