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Israel's 'Groundhog Day': Hold Elections. Call Another Vote. Repeat

Billboards show Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and rival candidate Benny Gantz in Bnei Brak, Israel, on Feb. 23. The sign in the foreground, for Netanyahu's Likud party, reads "Likud members, go out to vote, victory depends only on you."
Oded Balilty

Updated on March 2 at 10:21 a.m. ET

After two failed tries, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hoping to win another term on Monday in the country's unprecedented third election in less than a year.

Netanyahu is Israel's longest-serving prime minister, in office for more than a decade. He has led the country as it turned politically further to the right during a period of economic growth. He hardened Israel's policies toward Palestinians and became a leading ally of President Trump, who has sweetened Netanyahu's reelection campaign with diplomatic gestures and Oval Office photo ops. Now Netanyahu is fighting to hang on under a cloud of corruption charges.

To solidify his grip on power, Netanyahu called April elections in which he failed to win enough support in parliament to form a new government. So he orchestrated a repeat vote — a stunning blitz to block the centrist candidate, retired Gen. Benny Gantz, from taking his job.

In the second elections, neither Netanyahu's Likud party nor Gantz's Blue and White coalition had enough votes to form a government, and they couldn't agree on a power-sharing deal. Now Israelis are being dragged into a third exasperating round of elections.

Why's it so hard to form a government?

Eight main parties or coalitions of parties are vying for votes in Israel's legislative elections, and none is expected to win a majority of parliament's 120 seats. Whichever front-runner can form a majority coalition with other parties is the victor.

For years, Netanyahu has managed to stay in office by partnering with mostly right-wing and religious Jewish parties. A slightly larger share of Israelis voted for those parties in the past year. But one right-wing party, led by former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, no longer supports Netanyahu, leaving the incumbent without a majority. Netanyahu has acted as interim prime minister while the elections have been inconclusive.

Meanwhile, Gantz hasn't been able to muster his own center-left majority in parliament, hence the political standoff.

Will the results be any different this time or is Israel destined for a fourth round of elections?

Brace yourself for a possible fourth election. A Likud party campaign official tells NPR the party is even saving campaign funds in case there is another vote.

Friday's opinion polls, the last to be published before the election, suggest another stalemate between Netanyahu and Gantz. None of the parties seem willing to budge from their ideological corner to tip the scales.

There are some new factors that could work against Netanyahu. He has been indicted for alleged bribery and fraud, his corruption trial is scheduled to begin in two weeks and the charges could cause some of his right-wing allies to defect to Gantz's camp. Or justice officials could rule it would be improper for an indicted prime minister to form a new government. Gantz, whose slogan is "We Must Move Forward," claims Netanyahu would weaken democratic institutions if reelected and promises to heal Israeli society after Netanyahu's divisive years.

Other factors work in Netanyahu's favor. He hasn't seen his support slip much. He remains defiant against the justice system, touts his close ties with President Trump as in the previous votes and convinces his right-wing supporters his opponent is tainted by the support of Arab parties. He is running an effective reelection campaign, appealing to swing voters such as Ethiopian Jewish immigrants and gathering Likud supporters' telephone numbers for a massive get-out-the-vote drive. His Likud party has a phone app aiming to draw potential voters who don't normally go to the polls, though it inadvertently made some of their personal information vulnerable to hackers.

Turnout could be key. Many Israelis are tired of the repeated elections and could stay home, which could affect the vote. In the previous round, Gantz's supporters came to the polls in a bigger percentage than did Netanyahu's.

Will President Trump's Mideast peace plan affect the vote?

Though the Trump administration's proposal for peaceheavily favors Israel, and Netanyahu has touted it on the campaign trail to win over the right-wing, polls suggest it may not have tilted the vote.

The Trump proposal gives a green light for Israel to defy objections in the international community and annex Jewish settlements and other lands in the West Bank, occupied territory the Palestinians seek for their independent state. But the move got complicated quickly for Netanyahu and the White House, which told Israel to hold off on annexation for now, leading Netanyahu's settler supporters to question if Netanyahu would ever pull it off.

Gantz's party does not want to rush on annexation without international approval. Most countries regard Israeli settlements and land annexation as violations of international law.

Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel may be motivated by Trump's plan to show up to the polls Monday, weakening Netanyahu's chances of winning. The proposal suggests the "triangle" area in northern Israel with a large concentration of Arab Israeli citizens could be given to a future Palestinian state, angering some Arab voters who seek equality in Israel.

How are Palestinians affected by the vote?

Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank do not have Israeli citizenship and do not get to vote in Monday's elections. Neither do Palestinians in Gaza. But the outcome of the vote will directly affect their lives.

If Netanyahu wins and carries out his promise to annex West Bank lands, it would be an explosive move that Palestinian leaders would see as a nail in the coffin of a viable independent Palestinian state, distancing the sides from any compromise, perhaps leading to violence or increased calls for citizenship within Israel, a nightmare scenario for most Israelis.

Some Palestinians see little difference between the candidates and say Israeli discriminatory policies will continue. But Palestinian officials close to President Mahmoud Abbas are said to favor Gantz, who may take a more conciliatory approach with Palestinian leaders. And yet, Gantz has many former Netanyahu supporters on his party list who oppose concessions to Palestinians.

Ironically, Hamas in Gaza has benefitted lately from Netanyahu, who is hawkish toward the Palestinians but nevertheless has allowed cash into Gaza and eased Israeli restrictions on Gazans in a deal to reduce violence. Gantz criticizes that policy and promises a more forceful military takedown of Hamas in Gaza.

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Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Larry Kaplow edits the work of NPR's correspondents in the Middle East and helps direct coverage about the region. That has included NPR's work on the Syrian civil war, the Trump administration's reduction in refugee admissions, the Iran nuclear deal, the US-backed fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.