PM Benjamin Netanyahu faces tough Israeli election

PM Benjamin Netanyahu faces tough Israeli election
FILE - People walk by election campaign billboards showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, alongside the Blue and White party leaders, from left to right, Moshe Yaalon, Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Gabi Ashkenazi, in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 3, 2019.

Israelis are voting Tuesday in parliamentary elections with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decade-long hold on power at stake as he faces a tough contest with former military chief Benny Gantz.

Ahead of the voting, polls indicated Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White winning a similar number of seats in the 120-member Knesset. If that occurs, the 69-year-old Netanyahu might be poised to win a fifth term in a coalition with smaller right-wing parties allied to him.

As the months-long campaign neared an end, Netanyahu again reminded voters of his close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump. He thanked the U.S. leader — “my dear friend” — for responding Monday to a “request of mine” to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization.

In his two-year presidency, Trump already had acceded to other Netanyahu requests, including declaring the Jewish state’s sovereignty over Syria’s Golan Heights, territory that was captured in the 1967 Six-Day War; recognizing Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv; and pulling the U.S. out of the 2015 deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear weapons development.

Netanyahu, facing corruption charges, has moved in recent days to shore up his base of conservative voters, vowing to annex settlements in the occupied West Bank, a move that if done on a large scale could end any remaining hope of creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“Who else can do this? Who can do this? Come on. Honestly,” Netanyahu said, portraying himself as the face of Israel.

“Who can stand in front of the world?” he asked. “Who can stand in front of the American Congress? Who can move public opinion in that direction?”

The 59-year-old Gantz called Netanyahu’s pledge “irresponsible.” Gantz said he favors a “globally backed peace agreement” that envisions Israel maintaining its hold on the large settlement blocs in the West Bank and security control over the territory.

Gantz has portrayed himself as a unifying force in Israel and says that it is time to oust Netanyahu from power.

“There’s a need for change and an opportunity for change,” Gantz told Israel’s army radio on Monday. “Israel needs to choose a direction of unification, connection and hope — or of extremity.”

“Enough already, Bibi,” Gantz’s campaign videos say, using Netanyahu’s widely known nickname.

Should he win, Netanyahu would be on track later this year to become Israel’s longest-serving leader, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion.

But Netanyahu also faces an ongoing criminal investigation. Pending an upcoming hearing, the Israeli attorney general says he plans to indict Netanyahu on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges. Netanyahu has, much like Trump in the U.S. investigation of his 2016 election campaign, called the Israeli probes a “witch hunt.”

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