Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz had failed to form a coalition government in the past two elections in April and September.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his wife Sara Netanyahu cast their ballots during the Israeli legislative elections at a polling station in Jerusalem. March 2, 2020.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his wife Sara Netanyahu cast their ballots during the Israeli legislative elections at a polling station in Jerusalem. March 2, 2020. (AP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought re-election on Monday 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 in 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. Netanyahu is expected to face a stiff challenge from Gantz whose party ran on the message that the longtime prime minister is unfit to lead because of serious charges against him.

Israelis can vote until 2000 GMT, 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."

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.

Election atmosphere 

There was little fanfare in the days leading up to the vote, with a noticeable absence of campaign posters on the streets and public rallies that typically characterise the run-up to Israeli elections. With voter fatigue clearly a factor, turnout could prove to be decisive. 

Election day is a national holiday in Israel and the country usually boasts one of the highest voter turnouts among Western democracies. But the second repeat vote and fears of the new coronavirus, which has so far has been kept largely in check, look to hinder turnout.

Israel set up some 15 stations to allow voting by hundreds of Israelis who have been ordered to remain in home-quarantine after possible exposure to the virus.

"The corona thing is completely under control. Today we've taken all the precautions that are necessary, people can go and vote, with complete confidence," Netanyahu said, after placing his vote in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu and Gantz

Netanyahu has tried to portray himself as a statesman who is uniquely qualified to lead the country through challenging times. Gantz has tried to paint Netanyahu as divisive and scandal-plagued, offering himself as a calming influence and an honest alternative.

Gantz says he favours a national unity government with Likud, but only if it rids itself of its longtime leader because of the corruption charges against him. Netanyahu, who still enjoys widespread support in his party, insists he must remain prime minister in any unity deal.

With his career on the line, Netanyahu has campaigned furiously. He's taken a hard turn to the right in hopes of rallying his nationalist base, promising to expand and annex West Bank settlements. 

In a campaign that has been marked by ugly smears, Netanyahu's surrogates have spread unfounded allegations claiming Gantz is corrupt, unstable and susceptible to blackmail by Iran.

The most recent attempt appears to have backfired. Recordings have revealed Netanyahu lied on live television about not being involved in a plot to secretly record a Gantz consultant disparaging his boss.
Channel 12 aired audio Sunday night of Netanyahu speaking to the rabbi who clandestinely recorded the Gantz adviser and discussing when it would be leaked to the media.

Netanyahu is desperate to score a narrow 61-seat majority in parliament with his hard-line religious and nationalist allies before heading to trial two weeks later. Netanyahu has failed to secure himself immunity from prosecution, but with a stronghold on the power he could seek other avenues to derail the legal proceedings against him.

Netanyahu's trial 

Netanyahu goes on trial March 17 for charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust stemming from accusations he accepted lavish gifts from billionaire friends and promised to promote advantageous legislation for a major newspaper in exchange for favourable coverage. 

He vowed he will prove his innocence in court.

Opinion polls forecast similar results to the previous two stalemates, and the deadlock raises the possibility of the fourth election in quick succession.

Maverick politician Avigdor Lieberman once again looms as a potential kingmaker, with neither Netanyahu nor Gantz able to secure a parliamentary majority without his support. 

Lieberman has not committed himself to either candidate, though he has promised there will not be a fourth election.

Election results

Polling stations opened across the country at 0500 GMT on Monday with exit polls expected at the end of the voting day at 2000 GMT. Official results are projected to come in overnight.

That's when the real jockeying may get underway, with attention shifting to Rivlin who is responsible for choosing a candidate for prime minister. 

He is supposed to select the leader who he believes has the best chance of putting together a stable coalition.

The honour usually goes to the head of the largest party, but not necessarily. Just as important is the number of lawmakers outside his own party who recommend him to the president.

Rivlin's selection will then have up to six weeks to form a coalition. If he fails, another candidate then has 28 days to form an alternative coalition. If that effort fails, new elections would be forced. 

It's a procedural process that remained hypothetical for Israel's first 70 years of existence until it played out after the last election in September. Should results match current opinion polls, and all the major player stick to the campaign promises, it may well repeat itself.

"This is usually a holiday, but to be honest I have no festivity in me just a sense of deep shame before you, the citizens of Israel," Rivlin said as he cast his ballot. 

"We don't deserve this. We don't deserve another horrible and filthy campaign like the one that ends today and we don't deserve this endless instability. We deserve a government that will work for us."

Source: TRTWorld and agencies