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Israelis vote in repeat election centered on PM Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sarah cast their votes at a voting station in Jerusalem, Israel, on Sept. 17, 2019. (Heidi Levine, Sipa, Pool via AP)

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israelis vote Tuesday in an unprecedented repeat election that will decide whether longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stays in power despite a looming indictment on corruption charges.

Netanyahu, the longest serving leader in Israeli history, is seeking a fourth consecutive term in office, and fifth overall. But he faces a stiff challenge from retired military chief Benny Gantz, whose centrist Blue and White party is running even with Netanyahu's Likud. Both parties could struggle to form a majority coalition with smaller allies, though, forcing them into a potential unity government.

Netanyahu has tried to portray himself as a seasoned statesman who is uniquely qualified to lead the country through challenging times. Gantz has tried to paint Netanyahu as divisive and scandal-plagued, offering himself as a calming influence and an honest alternative.

Tuesday's vote marks their second showdown of the year after drawing even in the previous election in April.

Netanyahu appeared poised to remain in office at the time, with his traditional allies of nationalist and ultra-religious Jewish parties controlling a parliamentary majority.

But Avigdor Lieberman, his mercurial ally-turned-rival, refused to join the new coalition, citing excessive influence it granted the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. Without a parliamentary majority, Netanyahu dissolved parliament and called a new election.

Opinion polls have forecast similar results this time around, potentially putting Lieberman once again in the role of kingmaker.

After voting Tuesday, Lieberman reiterated his promise to force a unity government between Likud and Blue and White. He vowed there won't be a third round of elections and said the parties will have to deal with the "constellation" that emerges from this vote.

The performance by the Soviet-born politician's Yisrael Beitenu party is just one of the factors that could determine Netanyahu's future. Several small parties are fighting to squeak past the minimum 3.25% threshold for entering parliament. The performances of these parties could make or break Netanyahu's ability to form a coalition.

The longtime Israeli leader is desperate to secure a narrow 61-seat majority in parliament with his hard-line religious and nationalist allies who are expected to approve legislation that would grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution.

Israel's attorney general has recommended pressing criminal charges against Netanyahu in three separate corruption cases, pending a long delayed pre-trial hearing scheduled next month.

With his career on the line, Netanyahu has campaigned furiously and taken a late hard turn to the right in hopes of rallying his nationalist base.

He's staged a flurry of media appearances to beseech supporters to vote in large numbers to stave off the prospect of a left-wing government he says will endanger the country's security. He also has accused his opponents of conspiring with Arab politicians to "steal" the election, a message that has drawn accusations of racism and incitement.

Heavier turnout by Arab voters, many of whom stayed home in April, could hurt Netanyahu. After casting his ballot, the leader of the main Arab faction in parliament, Ayman Odeh, said Netanyahu was "obsessive" in his incitement toward Arabs. He said the answer was for that his constituents "must be first-class voters on the way to becoming first-class citizens."

Voter turnout has emerged as a key element of this election day, which is a national holiday aimed at encouraging participation. In April's election, turnout was about 69%, slightly below the 72% figure in the previous election in 2015.

As of 10 a.m., Israel's central election committee said some 15% of Israelis had already cast their ballots. It marked more than a 2% increase over the figure at the same time in April.

Aron Shaviv, who managed Netanyahu's 2015 re-election campaign, said Netanyahu believed "there's no such thing as bad coverage." But he thought his former boss may be making a mistake by appealing so heavily to hard-liners and giving up on moderate voters.

"He's turned people off, playing the right-left polarization as far as he possibly can," he said.

A centerpiece of his eleventh-hour agenda has been the pledge to extend Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank and to annex all the Jewish settlements there, something Netanyahu has refrained from doing during his decade-plus in power because of the far-reaching diplomatic repercussions.

His proposal sparked a cascade of international condemnation, including from Europe and Saudi Arabia, an influential Arab country that has quiet, unofficial ties with Israel. The U.S., however, had a muted reaction, suggesting Netanyahu coordinated his plan with the Americans ahead of time.

Netanyahu has also been flaunting his close ties to President Donald Trump, and the prospect of a defense pact between their countries shortly after the election, as part of his frantic push get out the vote and dictate the election's agenda on his terms.

Trump chimed in his prediction, telling reporters at the White House on Monday that it "will be a very interesting outcome. It's gonna be close."

After casting his ballot in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he could confirm the vote would be "very close."

Voting in his hometown of Rosh Haayin in central Israel, Gantz urged all Israelis to hope. "We will bring hope, we will be bring change, without corruption, without extremism," he said.

In his attacks on Arabs, Netanyahu has made unfounded claims of fraud in Arab voting areas and unsuccessfully pushed for legislation to place cameras in polling stations on election day.

He also claimed to have located a previously unknown Iranian nuclear weapons facility and said another war against Gaza militants is probably inevitable. In some of his TV interviews, the typically reserved Netanyahu has raised his voice and gestured wildly as he warned of his imminent demise.

Yohanan Plesner, president of the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute think tank and a former lawmaker, said he didn't think it reflected genuine panic.

"I think you're observing Israel's most seasoned and competent politician who knows exactly how to fire up his base and is now using all his tools at his disposal in order to ensure victory," he said.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. Tuesday with exit polls expected at the end of the voting day at 10 p.m. Official results are projected to come in overnight.

That's when the real jockeying may get under way, with attention shifting to President Reuven Rivlin who is responsible for choosing a candidate for prime minister. He is supposed to select the leader who he believes has the best chance of putting together a stable coalition. The honor usually goes to the head of the largest party, but not necessarily. Just as important is the number of lawmakers outside his own party who recommend him to the president.

Rivlin's selection will then have up to six weeks to form a coalition. If he fails, the president can appoint an alternative candidate and give him up to four weeks for the task.

In an overnight video, Rivlin said he will do everything in his power to "get an elected government in Israel as soon as possible and to avoid another election campaign.

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