Israel heads to the polls with no clear winner in sight on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party and chief rival Benny Ganz’s centrist Blue & White Party Opinion polls are neck-and-neck in the second general election of 2019.
Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term after failing to form a coalition following April’s election.
A week in Israeli politics is an eternity and the past days have brought fresh promises, rocket alerts, bitter recriminations and rhetoric as leaders seek last minute voter support.
As the Knesset race continues Netanyahu was rushed to safety by his security team when rocket sirens went off during a campaign speech in Ashdod on Tuesday night.
“We have a code red warning, leave quietly,” Netanyahu told supporters.
Netanyahu insisted on returning to the stage to finish his speech, later tweeting, “Great support in Ashdod. You must vote to stop a left wing Arab government.”
An IDF spokesman said some rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system.
There were no reports of injuries or damage.
Likud removed footage of the live images fearing it could damage Netanyahu’s campaign.
Political opponents duly pounced on the Israeli leader, citing a diminishing deterrence under his leadership.
Gabi Ashkenazi, Blue and White party, was at a campaign event in Ashkelon the same night.
“We don’t flee. We’re obligated and we’re here,” he noted.
“We’re continuing with our conference in Ashkelon as normal. We’re not afraid, not from Hamas and not from Hezbollah. This is exactly the answer to terror.”
Likud defended Netanyahu’s actions as the Prime Minister is a “protected person” so had to leave the stage when Shin Bet security officials rated the situation “too dangerous”.
Ashkenazi, they stated, could make his own decision as a private citizen.
Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman’s is an ongoing critic of Netanyahu and was in Ashdod during the rocket attack.
Taking to Facebook, he called for a “change of direction”.
“Today’s event proves Netanyahu’s policy, which means surrendering to terrorism, is bankrupt,” he noted.
Following the attacks, IAF planes struck 15 targets in the Gaza Strip including a weapons manufacturing facility, naval compound and Hamas tunnels during the early hours of Wednesday.
“The IDF will continue operating against attempts to harm Israeli civilians, and holds the Hamas terror organization accountable for events transpiring in the Gaza Strip and emanating from it,” an IDF spokesman said.
Netanyahu held security briefings in Tel Aviv yesterday.
There was a further rocket launched in Gaza as sirens alerted border residents on yesterday afternoon. Minor damage was reported.
IDF troops targeted two Hamas military posts in response.
The most recent polls have seen Gantz’s Blue & White Party hold a wafer slim lead ahead of the historic elections.
Channel 13, Channel 12 and Kan 11 had Gantz leading Netanyahu with 32-21 Knesset seats, Walla by 33-32.
Surveys placed the Joint List (Arab-dominated parties) in third place with 9-11 seats followed by Yisrael Beytenu and Ayelet Shaked’s Yamina Party on 9 seats then ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas on 7 seats apiece.
The Democratic Union held 6 seats followed by Gesher Union and Otzma Yehudit above the electoral threshold.
Otzma’s appeal benefits a right-wing bloc however polls indicate a coalition will need support from Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu.
Most observers nevertheless hold the viewpoint that Likud are closer to forming a coalition with satellite parties on the right.
A major talking point this week saw Netanyahu announce intentions to extend Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area if re-elected in the coming days.
Describing it as a “historic opportunity” for Israel’s heritage and future, he noted, “Democracy obliges that I present to you before the elections and not afterwards what I intend to do if you choose me.
“I want to request from you a clear mandate to extend Israeli sovereignty on all the settlements.”
Netanyahu added that out of respect for US President Donald Trump, he would not annex the areas of Judea and Samaria until Trump had presented his long-awaited peace plan after the elections.
“It’s really just around the corner,” he said.
Netanyahu added, “It puts a great challenge before us, but also a great opportunity. It’s a historic opportunity, a one-time window of opportunity to extend Israel sovereignty over our settlements in Judea and Samaria and also other areas of importance to our security, our history and our future.”
Netanyahu continued, “Together with the Golan Heights, it is the essential security belt in the Middle East. It’s our eastern defensive wall. A defensive wall that ensures that we’ll never return to be a State with a width of several kilometres.”
Referring to his leadership, Netanyahu claimed he was best placed to continue negotiations with Trump.
“Who will enlist Trump to our side? Who will be the next prime minister of Israel? I or Gantz-Lapid?,” he said. “I have promised to uproot not one.”
Blue & White’s Yair Lapid criticised the announcement as an impressive “election stunt” on social media.
“You have been Prime Minister for 13 years, if you wanted to annex the Jordan Valley or extend Israel’s borders, who stopped you?” he said.
Lapid claimed Likud’s leader did not want to annex the Jordan Valley but annex votes from Shaked.
And Democratic Party’s Ehud Barak accused Netanyahu of furthering his political goals whilst Yamina’s Naftali Bennett dismissed Netanyahu’s annexation vow as “just words”.
Bennett noted Netanyahu had failed to fulfil numerous pledges including the death penalty for terrorists and destroying Hamas.
Some Arab leaders were likewise critical of the annexation vow while a UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric warned of “devastating” prospects to the two-state solution.
Another heated debate involved Netanyahu’s bid to have cameras installed in polling stations to prevent ‘voting fraud’ in Arab districts.
Liberman, in a direct dig at his political rival, called for monitoring by election officials not “Netanyahu’s private militia”.
Netanyahu has sought legislation over concerns opponents were conspiring to “steal” the election. Critics have said he is pre-emptively claiming electoral fraud should he fall short of winning.
There were angry scenes in the Knesset yesterday when Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List of Arab parties, had an altercation Netanyahu over the issue.
Likud MKs were quick to act as the two clashed and ushered Odeh away.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein ordered Odeh to be removed from the floor.
Wednesday’s incident occurred as the Knesset debated the bill, tabled by Likud.
The law states that local election committees in polling stations can visually record voters as they are identified then approach voting booths.
Members can film as votes are counted.
On Monday, the Knesset Arrangements Committee refused to fast-track the legislation.
Netanyahu has backed the bill, citing voter fraud as a key election issue.
“Every member of the elections committee, observer, secretary or representative representing the elections committee, can document visually or vocally everything he’s authorised to oversee in order to fulfil his task,” the legislation notes.
“The integrity of elections is among the foundations of democracy,” Netanyahu explained at his weekly cabinet meeting. “The best way to prevent fraud in the elections is to station cameras in every polling place and allow poll watchers from the rival parties to supervise each other.
“Reciprocal oversight of all parties is the essence of transparency in a democracy and one of the most important foundations in upholding the rule of law. Therefore, cameras in polling places in the hands of poll watchers are a necessary means to assist in maintaining the integrity of the elections.”
Israeli Elections Committee chairman Hanan Meltzer and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit opposed the bill, Mandelblit expressing opposition to cabinet members.
Left-wing Democratic Union head Nitzan Horowitz has also voiced opposition.
He tweeted, “Cameras are designed to wipe out the election. If the camera hijacking passes in the Knesset, there will be chaos at the ballot box and the voting will fail.
“If there are no cameras, Bibi will say that huge fraud endangers the Likud and will cause a riot at the polls and claim that the elections are invalid. It’s a kind of coup. We have reached the red line of democracy.”
Netanyahu noted cameras would be in polling places, not where people cast ballots.
“The secrecy of the vote will be strictly maintained,” he explained. “No special preparations, training or equipment is necessary. Any poll watcher can film with his cellphone. This is what happens in our public space. Everyone photographs, everything is an Instagram story, every grocery has cameras, then the hall at the polling place cannot be photographed?
“Cameras in polling places for the integrity of the elections, it is simple, it is fair, it is transparent and it is just.”
He added, “One cannot explain why photography is restricted precisely in the only public place where transparency is required more than any other. We will submit the issue for legislation in order to ensure that the coming elections will be clean, supervised and exact, just as the citizens of Israel expect from us.”
Gantz meantime, is pushing for a draft law to prevent Prime Ministers serving if they face indictment, legislation aimed at much-publicised alleged crimes Netanyahu faces.
Proposed legislation states a Prime Minister charged with a criminal offense for serious offenses will not be able to hold office.
The legislation will affect all ministers enforced by the Supreme Court.
Gantz echoed his position at a Manufacturer’s Association conference in Tel Aviv last week.
“Netanyahu cannot be Prime Minister with three or four indictments against him,” he said.
“We won’t form a national corruption government with Netanyahu. We will form a national unity government with other actors, based on our guidelines.”
Elsewhere, it was reported the Labor-Gesher alliance had signed an agreement with the Arab Reform party to abolish the Nation-State law if part of a coalition.
A Labor statement noted, “Cooperation with the many supporters of the Reform party is a bridge between Jews and Arabs and we will do all we can to strengthen this.”
Also this week, 91-year-old Charedi leader Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky made a last-ditch election push in Tel Aviv due to ultra orthodox concern about Liberman in the polls.
Liberman wants to cut Charedi power, and worryingly for orthodox voters, has gained in electoral strength.
There is an expectation that he will play a key role after the elections.
Liberman has called for a national-unity government between Likud and Blue and White to freeze out Charedi parties from government. But he is concerned a low turnout will hand Netanyahu victory.
“The picture being painted is very worrying for us,” he told reporters. “Netanyahu will have at least 61-62 seats and will form his halachic government.”
Liberman predicts a 70% voter turnout could prevent a religious-right government but was sceptical.
“Only the seculars, the traditionals and immigrants can prevent the formation of an extremist government, especially in central Israel,” he explained.
“If voter turnout in central Israel doesn’t surpass 70%, then Netanyahu will certainly form the next government. All the laws he wants, will be passed within a month.”
Liberman further expressed an opinion that the Blue and White Party will fall apart, members joining Netanyahu’s government.
“This will be the worst government since Israel’s inception, a government bordering on insanity,” he noted.
Liberman added that he was already preparing for new elections as a coalition would collapse within 18 months.
By David Saffer