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Israel votes on Netanyahu’s political survival

Polls opened at 7:00 am (0400 GMT) and were due to close in most areas at 10:00 pm. At one Jerusalem polling station, a trickle of voters arrived to cast ballots just after opening time. The stakes could not be much higher for the 69-year-old right-wing leader who, as in April polls, faces a strong challenge from ex-military chief Benny Gantz and his centrist Blue and White alliance. Ex-defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, Netanyahu’s former right-hand man turned rival, could play a kingmaker role with his campaign to “make Israel normal again.”

Some 6.4 million people are eligible to cast ballots. The first exit surveys will be released just after polls close, while official results are not expected until Wednesday. Opinion polls have indicated another tight race, showing Netanyahu’s Likud and Blue and White winning around 32 seats each in the 120-seat parliament.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz paid a last-minute visit Monday night to Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews are allowed to pray. Netanyahu enters the election after having suffered one of the biggest defeats of his political career following the April vote.

His Likud along with its right-wing and religious allies won a majority of seats, leading Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to task the premier with forming a new government. But following weeks of discussions, Netanyahu failed, leading him to opt for an unprecedented second election rather than risk having Rivlin choose someone else.

The danger for Netanyahu extends beyond remaining prime minister, a post he has held for a total of more than 13 years. If he wins, many believe he will seek to have parliament grant him immunity from prosecution while facing the possibility of a corruption indictment in the weeks ahead. Israel’s attorney general has said he intends to indict Netanyahu for fraud, bribery and breach of trust pending a hearing expected only days after the election in early October.

A final decision would come later. Netanyahu would not be required to step down if indicted, only if convicted with all appeals exhausted. Recognising the stakes, Netanyahu spent the final days of the campaign seeking to appeal to right-wing nationalists — key to his re-election bid — and to boost turnout among his base

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