Israel elections: Netanyahu faces challenge from Gantz at polls

Police confiscate dozens of body cameras placed by Netanyahu's Likud party in polling sites in Palestinian areas.

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    Jerusalem - Israelis voted on Sunday to choose the next party to lead the 21st Knesset, amid reports of hundreds of cameras being placed in polling sites in predominately Palestinian areas, prompting an investigation.

    Israel's Central Elections Committee (CEC) chairman Judge Hanan Melcer has filed a complaint to the Israeli police after Likud reportedly provided right-wing activists with 1,200 body cameras to monitor polling sites located in Palestinian populated areas, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

    Incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the police investigation saying there should be cameras everywhere to "ensure a fair vote".

    Police have since removed the cameras.

    The election pits Netanyahu's Likud party against the Blue and White party led by Benny Gantz, a former army chief of staff, with about 40 parties in the running.

    Polls are open from 7am (04:00 GMT) to 10pm (19:00 GMT) at 10,720 polling stations.

    Israeli citizens aged 18 and over, including those living in illegal settlements in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank are eligible to vote. Israeli law excludes expats currently abroad from voting.

    The 4.8 million Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza do not have voting rights.

    According to the polls, Netanyahu and Gantz are leading a close race for prime minister. The position is chosen by the Israeli president, on the recommendations of Knesset Members (MK).

    At a polling station in the French Hill neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem, Yafit Scherer called voting an important privilege. 

    "I voted for Gantz. I want to change the government. I don’t want Netanyahu to continue being PM. [Netanyahu] is a very intelligent and smart person. He’s brilliant but he needs to go," she said, because of corruption charges levelled against him. 

    For real-estate agent Karen Hirshfeld the Palestinian question, which was largely ignored during the campaign, swayed her choice.

    "I voted for Meretz because I believe in a two-state solution. We have to separate from the Palestinians and ourselves and give them sovereignty. I think that would be best for this country."

    The final poll published by Israel's Channel 13 before the election showed the Likud and Blue and White in a dead heat with each gaining 28 seats.

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    The poll also predicted that Netanyahu's right-wing bloc would win 66 Knesset seats with Israel's centre-left parties winning 54, as reported by Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

    On Thursday Israel's Channel 12 released a poll in which respondents were asked who they would prefer to see as prime minister: 37 percent answered Netanyahu and 35 percent said Gantz.

    Last minute plea

    Asked who they believe would form a governing coalition, 58 percent of respondents answered Netanyahu.

    However, Netanyahu has been urging voters to head to the polls in a last-minute plea, warning that Likud was trailing behind the Blue and White party, according to Hebrew language media.

    "People think that we're going to win, so they're not coming to vote," Netanyahu reportedly said at a meeting late Monday night with MKs and Likud members.

    "Wake them up everywhere and tell them to bring their family and friends and get out and vote. Our mission is to quickly close the gap as much as possible," Netanyahu said, according to the Times of Israel.

    Sixty-one of the 120-seat Knesset seats are needed to form a government. As no single party has ever won a majority of 61 seats on its own, coalition governments are the norm.

    After the final votes are counted, President Reuven Rivlin decides which party leader has the best chance of forming a coalition government relying on recommendations from MKs. 

    Netanyahu told settler leaders in the occupied West Bank on Sunday that he did not think his Likud party would be able to put together a bloc to have the 61 recommendations that would prompt the president to choose him to form a government. 

    That's in part because the Zehut party, led by Moshe Feiglin, said it would ally with whichever party won the most seats.  

    "In a situation in which there is no bloc, then [Blue and White party heads Yair] Lapid and Gantz are the biggest parties. That is according to the polls in the media and that is according to our polling," Netanyahu reportedly said according to Israel Hayom.

    Undecided voters

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    Israeli newspaper Maariv reported a day before the election that half a million Israelis amounting to nine Knesset seats remain undecided as to who to vote for between the two frontrunners.

    The election is largely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu who is mired in corruption charges.

    Israel's attorney general announced in February 2019 that he intends to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases.

    Gantz formed the Blue and White party in February to unseat Netanyahu.

    Akiva Eldar, a senior columnist for Al-Monitor told Al Jazeera that Gantz provides an appealing alternative for those who don't want to vote for Netanyahu, but are not excited for voting for the left-wing Labor party either.

    "This was a way to vote in between the two of them for something new, for something that may succeed," Eldar said.

    "They don't believe that Labor has the power to get rid of Netanyahu and win the elections, while people believe Gantz can.

    "Gantz is not corrupt. He's managed to put together a nice group of people from different parties and it seems that he is a good manager to form [a party] in less than two months [from elections], to be able to bring together three former chiefs of staff and to convince Lapid to give up his ambition," Eldar said.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News