Israel election: Higher voter turnout as Netanyahu fights for record fifth term

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara cast their votes at a voting station in Jerusalem on Sept. 17, 2019. (Heidi Levine/Pool/AFP)
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Israelis queue up outside a polling station during Israel’s parliamentary election in Rosh Haayin on Tuesday, September 17, 2019. (AFP)
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Israel's former justice minister Ayelet Shaked greets supporters after casting her ballot during Israel's parliamentary election at a polling station in Tel Aviv on Sept. 17, 2019. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
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Retired Israeli General Benny Gantz, one of the leaders of the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) political alliance, casts his ballot with his wife Revital at a polling station in Rosh Haayin, on Sept. 17, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)
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An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man watches as another casts his ballot at a voting station in the city of Bnei Brak during the Israeli parliamentary election on Sept. 17, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
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Israel's former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman and his wife Ella cast their ballots at a polling station in the Israeli settlement of Nokdim in the occupied West Bank on Sept. 17, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/AFP)
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Campaign posters in Israel. (AFP)
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Israel's head of the mainly Arab Joint List alliance Ayman Odeh casts his ballot accompanied by his family during Israel's parliamentary election at a polling station in Haifa on Sept. 17, 2019. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Updated 17 September 2019

Israel election: Higher voter turnout as Netanyahu fights for record fifth term

  • At one Jerusalem polling station, a trickle of voters arrived just after it opened
  • An end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to lead to a big change in policy on hotly disputed issues in the peace process

JERUSALEM: Israel’s central election committee  said early turnout for the repeat election has been slightly higher than the previous round.

It said that as of 10:00am on Tuesday, some 15 percent of Israelis had already cast their ballots. It marked more than a 2 percent increase over the figure at the same time in April.

Voter turnout has emerged as a key element of this election. Election day is a national holiday, a measure aimed at encouraging participation.

In April’s election, turnout was about 69 percent, slightly below the 72 percent figure in the previous election in 2015.

But turnout in the minority Arab sector was just below 50 percent and many Arab voters boycotted the election. The various Arab leaders have handed together on a joint list for this election, hoping to boost turnout.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a battle for political survival in a closely fought election on Tuesday that could end his 10-year domination of national politics.

Opinion polls put former armed forces chief Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party neck-and-neck with Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud, and suggest the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party could emerge as kingmaker in coalition talks.

“(The election) is very close. I call on all citizens of Israel to come vote,” Netanyahu said, his voice hoarse after weeks of campaigning, as he cast his vote in Jerusalem shortly before 10 a.m.

Gantz voted shortly afterwards in Rosh Haayin, and wished everyone luck.

The two main parties’ campaigns in Israel’s second parliamentary election in five months point to only narrow differences on many important issues: the regional struggle against Iran, ties with the Palestinians and the United States, and the economy.

An Israeli man casts his ballot during Israel's parliamentary election, at a polling station in Rosh Haayin, on Sept. 17, 2019.  (Jack Guez /AFP)

An end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to lead to a big change in policy on hotly disputed issues in the peace process with the Palestinians that collapsed five years ago.

Netanyahu has announced his intention to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, where the Palestinians seek statehood. But Blue and White has also said it would strengthen Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank, with the Jordan Valley as Israel’s “eastern security border.”

The election was called after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition following an April election in which Likud and Blue and White were tied, each taking 35 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, or parliament. It’s the first time Israel has ever had two general elections in a single year.

Netanyahu, 69, has cast himself as indispensable and blighted by voter complacency over his tenure — the longest of any Israeli prime minister. He was prime minister from June 1996 until July 1999 and has held the post since March 2009.

Warning he may be replaced by “leftists” who would weaken Israel in the eyes of both foes and friends, Netanyahu has flooded the airwaves and social media with calls on his Likud faithful to turn out in force.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) and will close at 10 p.m. when Israeli media will publish exit polls giving a first indication of the outcome.

An ultra Orthodox Jewish man casts his ballot during Israel's parliamentary election, at a polling station in Rosh Haayin, on Sept. 17, 2019.  (Jack Guez/AFP)

“It’s going to be close. It’s going to be a close election,” US President Donald Trump told reporters on Monday in the Oval Office.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz, 60, have tried to energize their bases, and poach votes from smaller parties.

Netanyahu portrays Gantz as inexperienced and incapable of commanding respect from world leaders such as Trump. Gantz accuses Netanyahu of trying to deflect attention from his possible indictment on corruption charges that the prime minister has dismissed as baseless.

Hagit Cohen, a 43-year-old social worker, said she would back Blue and White rather than her former favorite, the now fringe Labour party: “I don’t want my vote to be wasted. Gantz may not be perfect, but enough is enough with Bibi (Netanyahu).”

Gantz also worries about public apathy. Interviewed by Army Radio, he urged Tel Aviv residents to “put down their espressos for an hour” and vote — a nod to the secular, middle-class constituency he hopes to mobilize against pro-Netanyahu religious-nationalists.

Ballots lie on a table during Israel’s parliamentary election, at a polling station in Rosh Haayin, on Sept. 17, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

“There is a definite sense of fatigue. Many Israelis are fed up with the politicians, or expect more of the same,” said Amotz Asa-El, research fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute.

Netanyahu, Asa-El said, “has always divided the electorate into ‘theirs’ and ‘ours’. This time he’s reading the political map even more closely and knows that he needs every extra vote.”

In the Israeli-Arab town of Taybeh, residents showed up to vote without incident. In April, there was some controversy when election monitors from Netanyahu’s Likud party turned up with cameras in Arab areas. Locals accused them of voter intimidation with Likud saying they were trying to prevent election fraud.

Before the last election, Trump gave Netanyahu a boost with US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. This time, the White House seems more preoccupied with Iran.

The Trump administration plans soon to release an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that may prove a dead letter: The Palestinians have rejected it in advance as biased.

An Israeli man holds his dog while casting his ballot during Israel's parliamentary election at a polling station in Rosh Haayin, on Sept. 17, 2019.  (Jack Guez/AFP)

In Gaza, Palestinians awaited the results of the vote.

“This election affects many things in our life,” said Mohamad Abdul Hay Hasaneen, a janitor in the city of Khan Younis. “There might be limited escalations after the election, but I don’t think this would result in a full war.”

Still, the telegenic Netanyahu’s open door in Washington and other world capitals, at a combustible time on Israel’s borders with Syria, Gaza, and Lebanon, remains a big draw domestically.

“There’s no one else running who is worthy of being prime minister,” said Alon Gal, a 53-year-old hi-tech manager who plans to vote Likud after previously supporting a party further to the right. “With him, at least I know who I am dealing with.”

Weeks of wrangling over who should be tasked with forming the next government could follow the election. Opinion polls indicate Yisrael Beiteinu could hold the key to the next coalition because it is forecast to win double its representation in the Knesset, from five seats to 10.

Members of the Israeli Druze community cast their votes during Israel's parliamentary elections on Sept. 17, 2019, in Daliyat al-karmel in northern Israel. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)


Iraqi blogger returns day after kidnapping

Updated 45 min 12 sec ago

Iraqi blogger returns day after kidnapping

  • “Around 15 men wearing masks and black uniforms” took Al-Khafaji from his home, the blogger’s father said
  • Twenty-four hours later, hei was “abandoned in a street with $20 to pay for a taxi home”

BAGHDAD: A prominent Iraqi blogger resurfaced Friday a day after he was seized by masked gunmen, his father said, as Amnesty International denounced a “climate of fear” in the country after protests and deadly violence.
Shujaa Al-Khafaji’s family said armed men had snatched him from his home on Thursday without identifying themselves or showing an arrest warrant.
Khafaji’s Facebook page, Al-Khowa Al-Nadifa (Arabic for “Those Who Have Clean Hands“), carries posts on political and social issues and has some 2.5 million followers.
“Around 15 men wearing masks and black uniforms” took Khafaji from his home, the blogger’s father, Fares Al-Khafaji, told AFP.
He said they seized his son’s phones and computers, but were not violent.
Twenty-four hours later, Khafaji was “abandoned in a street with $20 to pay for a taxi home,” his father added.
The report of Khafaji’s seizure sparked an outcry from activists and influential political leaders.
Rights watchdog Amnesty International denounced a “relentless campaign of intimidation and assault against activists in Iraq” by authorities.
“The Iraqi authorities must immediately rein in the security forces and dismantle the climate of fear they have deliberately created to stop Iraqis from peacefully exercising their rights to freedoms of expression and assembly,” said Lynn Maalouf, the group’s Middle East research director.
The group said other activists, including a doctor and a lawyer, were “forcibly disappeared more than 10 days ago,” and called on Iraqi authorities to reveal their whereabouts.
Firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr wrote on Twitter that “any act of aggression (against journalists or activists)... by the state constitutes an attack on freedom of speech.”
Former prime minister Haider Al-Abadi’s parliamentary bloc called on the government “to stop abuses of free media.”
Iraq was gripped by anti-government protests between October 1 and 6, during which 110 people, mainly demonstrators, were killed in clashes with security forces.
During the protests, unidentified armed men in uniforms raided several local television stations in Baghdad, destroying their equipment and intimidating their staff.
Journalists and activists also reported receiving threats, mostly by phone, from unidentified callers accusing them of having sided with the protesters.
Khafaji faced online harassment last month after a string of attacks on bases of the Hashed Al-Shaabi, a paramilitary force dominated by pro-Iran groups.
The group on Thursday denied any involvement in the disappearance of activists, threatening legal action against anyone making such accusations.
But according to Amnesty, the Hashed was involved in at least one abduction — that of lawyer Ali Hattab, who represented protesters and was seized on October 8 in the southern city of Amara.
He was snatched by “suspected members of a faction of the Popular Mobilization Units (Hashed),” Amnesty said quoting Hattab’s relatives.
It happened two days after “two armed men from the PMU came to (his) home to warn him to stop being vocal about the killing of protesters on Facebook, otherwise they would kill him,” Amnesty added.