Israelis have begun voting in the country’s second election this year, following a campaign dominated by Benjamin Netanyahu and his vows to implement a far-right, ultranationalist agenda in exchange for a record fifth term as leader.
Facing the prospect of criminal corruption indictments and hoping to extend his unmatched stint in the prime minister’s office, Netanyahu has promised to declare up to a third of the occupied Palestinian territories as part of Israel if he is re-elected.
His campaign also demonised Israel’s large Arab minority as a fifth column that endangers the country, allied itself with the extremist Jewish Power faction, and warned that the election could be stolen by fraud in Arab areas. And Netanyahu last week reportedly considered a major military operation against Gaza.
“Citizens of Israel, we find ourselves at the high point of a historic change in the history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel,” the 69-year-old prime minister wrote in the Maariv newspaper on Monday.
He claimed he had spent the past three decades fighting to keep Israel’s military presence in the Palestinian territories despite “the pressures of the Clinton and Obama administration”.
“I am now asking for your confidence so as to complete this historic task and to fortify the State of Israel’s borders and security forever.”
As part of the eleventh-hour media blitz, Netanyahu said in an interview with Israel Army Radio that he intended “to extend sovereignty on all the settlements and the [settlement] blocs,” including “sites that have security importance or are important to Israel’s heritage”.
Asked if that included the hundreds of Jews who live under heavy military guard amid tens of thousands of Palestinians in Hebron, Netanyahu responded: “Of course.”
More than 6.3 million people are eligible to vote at polling stations that will close at 10pm (8pm BST) on Tuesday, after which exit polls will be reported.
With a razor-thin margin expected between Netanyahu and his main rival, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, an inconclusive result where neither has a clear path to forming a coalition government is a potential outcome. That deadlock could plunge Israel into another political crisis, with the prospect of weeks of tense deal-making or even a third election.
Gantz, a security hawk who focused his campaign on Netanyahu’s alleged corruption and anti-democratic moves, also wrote in Monday’s edition of Maariv, slamming the prime minister for “spins and telling lies”.
The former head of the army, who describes himself as a centrist but also supports annexing Palestinian land, promised he would employ “disproportionate force” to fight off frequent rocket attacks from Gaza.
“Blue and White under my leadership will change the direction of the ship of state of Israeli democracy,” he said.
As with every Israeli election, security has been a key issue, with Netanyahu’s opponents attempting to paint him as indecisive and conflict-averse. When the prime minister was whisked away by his security team at a campaign event during a Palestinian militant rocket attack from Gaza, Netanyahu’s political foes jumped on the incident to portray him as weak.
The local Haaretz newspaper reported on Monday that later that night, Netanyahu had considered launching a significant military operation in Gaza, one that may have delayed the election, but was advised against it. The government denied the report.
Israel is holding a repeat election just five months after the last one. This time, all eyes will be on Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu’s former right-hand man, whose refusal to join a coalition government with Jewish ultra-Orthodox parties in May led to a cascade of events that resulted in the second vote.
His staunchly secular stance against religious politicians appears to have drawn support from the nonreligious right wing, and he could come out as the kingmaker who decides Israel’s next prime minister.
Lieberman wants Netanyahu to form a unity government with the opposition, but Gantz has ruled out serving with him. Netanyahu, the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, is also very unlikely to sit in a government headed by anyone but himself.
In preparation for election day, the military will close crossings with the occupied West Bank, where more than 2.5 million Palestinians live under Israeli rule but cannot vote, and Gaza, where 2 million more live under a blockade.
As in previous elections, Netanyahu has warned of defeat at the hands of politicians from Israel’s Arab minority and “leftists” in an attempt to boost rightwing turnout. Last week, Facebook temporarily shut down a chatbot on his official page for breaching the company’s hate speech policy after it warned of Arabs who “want to destroy us all”.
Israel’s Arab parties could win significant votes after reunifying into a single alliance, similar to 2015 when they became the third-largest force in the Knesset. It is possible they could gather enough seats to block Netanyahu’s premiership.