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Israelis go to polls as political crisis grinds on

TEL AVIV: Voting in under way in Israel for the fifth time in less than four years, with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigning for a comeback alongside far-right allies.

For the fifth time since 2019, Israelis have been voting in national elections as the political deadlock that has paralysed the country for the past three and a half years persists.

Polling stations opened at 0500 GMT on Tuesday for the latest vote, with Israelis given until 2000 GMT to cast their ballot.

Polls have predicted a similar result: stalemate. But a powerful new player is threatening to shake things up. Itamar Ben-Gvir, a leading far-right politician, has surged in opinion polls recently and will be seeking a harder line against the Palestinians if he helps propel former leader Benjamin Netanyahu to victory.

With former allies and proteges refusing to sit under him while he is on trial, Netanyahu has been unable to form a viable majority government in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament. His opponents, an ideologically diverse constellation of parties, are equally hamstrung in cobbling together the 61 seats needed to rule.

That impasse has mired Israel in an unprecedented political crisis that has eroded Israelis’ faith in their democracy, its institutions and their political leaders.

“People are tired of instability, of the fact that the government is not delivering the goods,” said Yohanan Plesner, a former legislator who now heads the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

Buoyed by his followers’ almost cult-like adoration, Netanyahu, 73, has rejected calls to step down by his opponents, who say someone on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes cannot govern. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing, but embarrassing details from his ongoing trial repeatedly make front page news.

In Israel’s fragmented politics, no single party has ever won a parliamentary majority, and coalition-building is necessary to govern. Netanyahu’s most likely path to the premiership requires an alliance with extremist ultra-nationalists and religious ultra-Orthodox parties.

These parties would demand key portfolios in a Netanyahu government, and some have promised to enact reforms that could make Netanyahu’s legal woes disappear.

Ben-Gvir, who is leading the Jewish Power party under the ultranationalist Religious Zionism coalition wants to deport Arab legislators and is a former disciple of a racist rabbi who was assassinated in 1990, has promised to support legislation that would alter the legal code, weaken the judiciary and could help Netanyahu evade a conviction.

Promising a tougher line against Palestinians, Ben-Gvir announced this week that he would seek the Cabinet post overseeing the police force.

Critics have sounded the alarm over what they see is a destructive threat to Israel’s democracy.

“If Netanyahu is triumphant,” wrote columnist Sima Kadmon in the Yediot Ahronot daily, “these will be the final days of the state of Israel as we have known it for 75 years.”

Netanyahu’s Likud party has tried to tamp down worries, saying any changes to the legal code won’t apply to Netanyahu’s case and that the extremist elements of his potential coalition will be reined in.

Netanyahu, currently opposition leader, paints himself as the consummate statesman and only leader capable of steering the country through its myriad challenges. Polls say the race is too close to predict.

Netanyahu was ousted last year after 12 years in power by the diverse coalition forged by Yair Lapid, Netanyahu’s main challenger.

The centrist Lapid, a former author and broadcaster who became premier as part of a power-sharing agreement, has portrayed himself as an honest and scandal-free change from the polarising Netanyahu.