Israel goes to the polls on April 9, 2019 to elect the 120 member Knesset. According to Israel's basic law national elections for the Knesset are required to take place on a Tuesday in the Jewish month of Cheshvan (late September through early November) four years following the previous elections. Normally therefore the elections ought to have been held in November 2019.

The snap polls called by Prime Minister Netanyahu, were, according to the official version, necessitated by a dispute in the ruling coalition over a bill affecting exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews. An additional factor was the resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party in November 2018 , ostensibly in protest against an inadequate military response to attacks from Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The ruling coalition was left with a fragile majority of 61 members. But some speculation has been reported that Netanyahu’s move was designed to try to return to power before the Attorney General indicted him formally on corruption charges.

Most polls suggest that the two main protagonists in the forthcoming elections would be Benjamin Netanyahu, seeking a fourth consecutive term as Prime Minister and , a new challenger, retired Israeli Defence Force Chief of Staff General Benny Gantz. Recent opinion polls have shown fluctuating results with the PM’s Likud Party and the Blue and White coalition of Benny Gantz’s Hosen L’Yisrael ( Israel Resilience Party) and former ex-finance minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid running neck to neck.

A poll published by Israel's Channel 13 had predicted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party would overtake his rival Benny Gantz's Blue and White coalition aka Kahol Lavan. The latest poll-the last one allowed before the election date- in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper shows Netanyahu trailing Gantz.

Reports suggest that some far right candidates like the Zehut party’s Moshe Feiglin who has declared in favour of annexing the West Bank and Gaza and throwing out hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to other countries as well as called for the legalisation of pot could also do well.

Israel follows the closed-list method of party-list proportional representation whereby citizens vote for their preferred party and not for any individual candidates. Given the large number of political parties in Israel, coalitions have been the norm since no single party has ever been able to secure a simple majority. The current coalition government, led by Netanyahu, contained five or six parties at different times. In the forthcoming elections a record number of 47 parties have registered to contest. But many of them would not find it possible to reach the 3.5 percent threshold to obtain a seat in the Knesset. Two party lists can sign an agreement that allows them to compete for leftover seats as though they are running together.

Any Israeli citizen over 21 can be elected to the Knesset. Those not eligible include holders of several high positions in the civil service and officers or career soldiers , soldiers in compulsory service, and felons convicted and sentenced to prison terms exceeding three months (until seven years after their prison term expired).

The President of the State of Israel; the two Chief Rabbis of the State of Israel; any judge in the judicial system holding office; any dayan, or judge in the Rabbinical Court system holding office; the State Comptroller; Rabbis or Ministers of religions, who receive salaries,are among those who cannot serve as Knesset members. The rules also prevent any list for the elections being formed by a party that negates the State of Israel as the state of the Jewish people; negates the democratic nature of the State; incites racism or supports armed struggle against the State of Israel.

Parties are likely to join up with others if they do not secure the 3.5 percent necessary to get a seat in the Knesset. The parties contesting the 2019 elections include the following:-

Likud Benjamin Netanyahu’s party.

United Torah Judaism a joint endeavour between ultra-Orthodox parties Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah.

Joint List a diverse group of Arab factions – ranging from communists to Islamists –united as one party.

Meretz a left-wing Zionist party- headed by Tamar Zandberg.

Shas- the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox party of Arye Dery.

Kulanu headed by Moshe Kahlon with a focus on social issues. Kahlon a former finance minister might side with the Likud if his party does not fare well.

Yesh Atid -a center-left-turned-center-right under Yair Lapid.

The Yisrael Beiteinu headed by …Lieberman the former defence minister, which is largely a party of hawks and Soviet immigrants

The left wing Labor Party now under new leader Avi Gabbay , which had split from Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah. Livni had said she would not be contesting in the elections.

Habayit Hayehudi a religious-Zionist, right-wing party which had been formed following a merger between the National Religious Party and the National Union in 2008.

In addition other parties contesting the elections this time are :-

Hayamin Hehadash a new formation of Ayelet Shaked, the outgoing justice Minister and Naftali Bennett, the outgoing education minister seeking to attract both secular and religious voters.

Telem headed by former chief of staff, Moshe Ya’alon, who quit the Netanyahu government in 2016 after being dismissed as defense minister. The party’s name is the same as the one run by another IDF chief, Moshe Dayan, in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

Gesher formed by Orli Levi-Abekasis after she broke away from Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu.

In an interesting development the Central Elections Committee had approved Jewish Power party candidate Michael Ben-Ari’s candidacy in an appeal alleging that he had displayed anti Arab racism. The Commission had also disqualified Raam-Balad, a joint party list representing some of Israel’s 20 percent Arab minority. Both decisions of the Committee were overturned by Israel’s top court.

The past months have seen developments some of which could boost Netanyahu’s standing and others that threaten to irretrievably tarnish his image. The decision by American President Donald Trump to shift the American Embassy to Jerusalem and declaring Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights could work to Netanyahu’s advantage.

The Israeli media reports that President Putin of Russia has been quite forthcoming in his endorsement of Netanyahu who has been on a visit to Moscow just a few days before the elections. In effect Netanyahu has legitimized Russia’s presence in Syria and quietly agreed to the pullout of U.S. troops in exchange for the Russian grudging acceptance of Israeli strikes against Iran in Syria. But the media also views the visit as a move by Netanyahu to woo the Former Soviet Union (FSU) electorate, the largest single voting bloc among the country’s Jewish voters.

The estimated million-strong population of FSU immigrants and their Israeli-born children and grandchildren control enough votes to decide a tight race.

But the recently announced decision by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be put on trial for bribery and corruption charges could damage his chances since polls suggest that his denials of any misdoing are not believed by the Jewish people or the Arabs. Netanyahu’s reputation has been under a cloud with the Israeli police recommending he be indicted on corruption charges.

The allegations are that he received about $280,000 in gifts in return for political favours; that he made a secret pact with an Israeli publisher for favorable coverage; that his spokesman tried to bribe a judge to drop a fraud case against Netanyahu’s wife. But the most significant case accuses him of corruption relating to a multibillion-dollar submarine deal with Germany. Members of Netanyahu’s inner circle, including his personal lawyer and cousin, have been arrested and Netanyahu’s protestations that he did not receive a single shekel have largely been disbelieved.

The election campaign has been ugly with the candidates stooping to personal insults. While Gantz has focused on the corruption charges against Netanyahu and the Likud leader’s inability to stem the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu has managed to turn talk of peace, coexistence and reconciliation by his rivals into a symptom of advanced senility and an expression of dangerous defeatism. T

he Likud has released a new campaign to project Benny Gantz, as mentally unstable and a Maariv newspaper columnist claimed that Gantz was “treated by a psychologist” and received “prescription medication” after retiring from service in 2015. The source of the information in the column was not disclosed. Netanyahu had also been trying to mobilise support from among the right wing elements through “Move to the Right”, called "Zazim Yemina" led by senior Likud activist Mordechai Benita. A petition was filed by the left-wing Labor Party and Attorney Shahar Ben-Meir that the Likud headquarters were being used to finance and run Move to the Right.

The Chairman of the Elections Committee, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, announced a criminal investigation against the Likud party to determine if its Move to the Right campaign broke any election laws. Likud faces fines for the campaign that seeks to drum up support for not just itself but other right-wing parties.

Security remains a prime concern for Israelis. Netanyahu has singled out Iran and organisations like Hezbollah as the main threat. He has been wooing anti Iran Arab states seeking to make common cause with them. In addition to the air strikes aimed at crippling Iran’s support to President Assad of Syria, Netanyahu’s latest threat has been aimed at what he has termed Iranian oil smuggling in violation of the sanctions on that country. He has said that the Israeli navy could take action to stop such activity.

The other issue is the Palestinian issue with the ongoing conflict with Hamas and the situation in Gaza. With regard to the action taken against the Palestinians in Gaza, the United Nations Human Rights Council has condemned Israel’s “apparent intentional use of unlawful lethal and other excessive force” against civilian protesters in Gaza, and called for perpetrators of violations in the enclave to face justice.

Opinion surveys in the run up to the elections have revealed a deep divide between the Jews and Israeli Arabs on this issue. 66.5% of the Jewish public thinks that Israel is too lenient in dealing with the clashes on the Gaza border- a view contrary to 48 percent of Arab opinion that Israel is acting too strongly.

The question of an ultimate solution to the Palestine issue is also being debated with the contours of President Trump’s “Deal of the Century” peace plan still now known. The Likud has rejected the notion of a Palestinian state though, if elected, Netanyahu could shift position. Benny Gantz’s Blue and White formation has sought to keep right wingers mollified by endorsing a dialogue with the Palestinians but not promising a state for them.

Meanwhile a deal between Hamas and Israel, brokered by Egypt, has not worked. The deal had provided for Israel to allow an increase in Qatari funding for the Palestinians from $15m to $40m a month to pay salaries; extending the fishing zone from nine to 12 nautical miles; increasing the electricity supply from Israel into Gaza; and approving a major desalination project. Hamas in return was to cease the rocket attacks.

Hamas rejected the fresh tranche of Qatari funds saying that Israel was imposing new conditions on the money entering the blockaded territory and attempting to evade the terms of the Egypt brokered agreement. On the first anniversary of the Great March of Return tens of thousands of Palestinians rallied at the Israel-Gaza fence facing off against Israeli tanks and troops. Israeli forces used live rounds, rubber bullets and tear gas on the protesters, killing three 17-year-old boys, and wounding at least 207 people. Gaza’s Ministry of Health has reported that in one year mass protests at the Israel-Gaza fence more than 260 Palestinians were killed, mostly by Israeli sniper fire. Nearly 7,000 others were shot and wounded.

Who will win?

Gantz carries the aura of a former army chief. But beyond that little is known of his views on different issues. A negative Arab vote could cost him the election since he is on record highlighting the numbers of Palestinian militants he killed as commander of Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza. A poll by the Gutman Center of the Israel Democracy Institute had shown that 42.5% of the Israelis said they favored a government headed by Netanyahu, while 40.5% favored a government headed by Gantz.

Analysis by age revealed that the preference for Gantz was greater among those aged 45 and over, while Netanyahu was preferred by the younger voters. The crucial question is whether the Attorney General will dump the documents, on the basis of which he has decided to try Netanyahu, into the public domain before election day. That could be a disaster for Netanyahu as a reading of the documents could tarnish the charisma of a self proclaimed tough man and nationalist. The Attorney General could not be very happy with Netanyahu publicly accusing him of being party to a “setup” and a “witch hunt”.