JERUSALEM: Israel is bracing for an unprecedented third election in under a year, with voters eyeing an end to the deadlock but polls indicating another tight race despite criminal charges against the prime minister.
Two previous votes in April and September last year failed to produce a clear winner between right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main challenger Benny Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White party.
Ballot-weary Israelis have shown limited enthusiasm ahead of the March 2 election, with some grudgingly accepting the possibility of a fourth run before the year ends.
But there have been significant developments since Israelis last went to the polls.
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving premier, has become the first to be indicted while in office.
Charges unveiled in November and filed in court last month accuse him of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
The prime minister denies wrongdoing in the case that involves multiple alleged offenses.
The most serious allegation is that Netanyahu offered mogul Shaul Elovitch regulatory changes worth millions of dollars to his telecoms giant Bezeq in exchange for positive coverage on Elovitch’s Walla! news website.
The trial starts on March 17.
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Since the last election, US President Donald Trump has unveiled his controversial plan to end the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Trump’s terms have been rejected by the Palestinians as a capitulation to Israeli objectives.
Netanyahu, who was standing next to Trump at the White House as the initiative was announced last month, cheered it as an “historic” opportunity for the Jewish state.
He has also portrayed the deal as a product of his personal bond with Trump that can only be implemented if he is re-elected prime minister.
But neither the criminal indictments, nor the pro-Israel Trump initiative have moved the polls.
Recent surveys indicate that Netanyahu’s Likud party and Blue and White will both fall short of the 61 seats required for a majority in parliament, the Knesset.
Status quo in the polls could be good news for the prime minister, said Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“He is not attracting more voters, but he is not losing voters either,” despite the indictments, Rahat said.
Gantz, a former military chief, has sought to convince Israelis that the prime minister’s legal woes will distract him from governing.
“Netanyahu is going to court ... he won’t be able to look after the needs of Israeli citizens,” he said this week.
Meanwhile, Israeli prosecutors are probing whether a cyber-security firm formerly chaired by Gantz, Fifth Dimension, inappropriately received public funds.
But the attorney general has confirmed that Gantz is not personally implicated in the investigation.
Netanyahu has, ahead of past elections, been accused of making last-minute campaign pledges as a play for vital nationalist, right-wing support.
In an interview with the Jerusalem Post on Friday, he repeated his warning that Gantz cannot form a government without support from the mainly Arab Joint List, and its leader Ahmad Tibi.
Joint List won a surprising 13 seats in the last election, making it the third-largest bloc in parliament.
“If Likud doesn’t win, there will be either a fourth election or a left-wing government headed by Gantz and dependent on Ahmad Tibi and the Joint List,” Netanyahu told the paper.
The prime minister this week also announced thousands of new Jewish settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem, construction projects considered illegal by most of the international community.
Palestinian leaders blasted the settlement announcement as a blatant play by Netanyahu to energize his right-wing base.
Facing static polls, both leading parties have grown increasingly concerned about turnout, Rahat said.
“Anywhere else in the world, when you have three elections really close together you would see declining turnout” due to voter apathy, he said.
But turnout ticked up marginally in September compared with April.
“In Israel, you never know,” Rahat said.