In Depth

Israel election 2019: who will win?

Polls put Benjamin Netanyahu neck-and-neck with political newcomer Benny Gantz

A general election in Israel is set to be the closest that the country has seen for years, with incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fighting for political survival amid a series of scandals. 

If re-elected for a fifth term in office on Tuesday, Netanyahu would become the longest-serving PM in Israel’s history, breaking a record set by the nation’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion.

However, Netanyahu faces serious corruption charges pending a final hearing with the attorney general, while going up against a tough new rival for the top job, Benny Gantz.

Who are the election front-runners? 

The polls are led by two parties - Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and the newly founded Blue and White, led by Gantz - with the 12 other contender parties trailing far behind.

Likud has been in power since 2009, but the once-favourable odds on the party securing a fourth consecutive term have wavered in the wake of the corruption cases against its leader.

The first case alleges that the PM has received gifts from international billionaires in exchange for favours. The second alleges collusion with the country’s top newspaper to hurt its competition in exchange for favourable coverage.

In the final and most serious case, Netanyahu is accused of giving incentives to Israeli telecom provider Bezeq in exchange for positive stories about him on the company’s online news site.

His party’s main rival, the centrist Blue and Whites, was founded in February, in a merger between three parties including one formerly led by Gantz.

Chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces until 2015, Gantz is running on a platform promising cleaner politics, more inclusion of minority communities in public life, and a renewed push for peace talks with the Palestinian Authority.

In “suitability for prime minister” polls conducted by the media, Gantz is the first opponent in a decade to tie with Netanyahu. 

What are the main issues for voters?

A pre-election poll from the Israel Democracy Institute ranked voters’ main concerns as the various parties’ positions on socioeconomic issues, followed by party leaders’ personalities, and then foreign and defence matters.

National security is a perennial concern among Israeli voters. Traditionally, this has been an advantage for Netanyahu, widely seen as a hawk on defence. However, as a former chief of staff, Gantz can rival Netanyahu convincingly on the issue.

Although his party has indicated more willingness to negotiate with the Palestinian territories, Gantz is no peacenik. Indeed, he recently “released a campaign video touting his achievement in bombing Gaza back to the ‘Stone Age’”, reports NBC News.

Netanyahu’s corruption cases are also having a big impact on voters. If he were elected, pre-trial hearings would take up the first few months of his term - not an attractive prospect.

Demographics have a big influence on how the vote is split, too. Traditionally ultra-Orthodox Jews, who account for around 12% of the population, voted for niche religious parties, says the BBC. However, an increasing number now vote for mainstream parties - making these voters a political force to be reckoned with.

A key issue for the group is ensuring their continued exemption from military service, an increasingly contentious matter of national debate, and an issue due to come up in the next parliament.

Who will win? 

The final polls legally allowed before the election were released on Friday, and put Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White party neck-and-neck. 

However, the largest bloc of voters are still undecided. This chunk of the electorate includes many right-wing former supporters of the Likud party who feel alienated by the corruption scandal around Netanyahu.

According to Haaretz, the Israel Arab vote could swing the election results. Making up about 17% of the population, if the group votes in large numbers it could put Grantz’s bloc over the top.

“On the other hand, if they sit out the election in larger than usual numbers, it’s likely to be the right-wing bloc led by Netanyahu that will benefit,” says the newspaper.

Whoever wins this week, they will almost certainly not be ruling alone.

Israel has never seen a single party win the majority of seats in parliament - meaning the winner’s first job will be to attempt to cobble together the support of enough minority parties to form a majority coalition of at least 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

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