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“No sense of celebration”: Israel holds election with more deadlock predicted

epa08264043 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and his wife Sara Netanyahu (L) cast their ballots during the Israeli legislative elections, at a polling station in Jerusalem, 02 March 2020. Israelis are heading to the polls for a third general election, following the prior elections in September 2019, to elect the 120 members of the 23nd Knesset, or parliament. According to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics, more than six million people are eligible to vote. EPA-EFE/ATEF SAFADI / POOL

JERUSALEM, March 2 (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought re-election on Monday under the weight of an imminent corruption trial, with the country's third ballot in less than a year predicted to end in another deadlock.

The election follows inconclusive votes last April and September that dimmed the aura of political invincibility once enjoyed by Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who has denied wrongdoing in the three graft cases against him.

“Today I have no sense of celebration,” President Reuven Rivlin said after voting, voicing the frustration across the country after a seemingly neverending election season. “The feeling I have is not simple, it’s even one of shame, when I face you, the citizens of Israel.”

Opinion polls forecast that neither Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud nor the centrist Blue and White party of his main challenger, former armed forces chief Benny Gantz, will win enough votes on their own, or with coalition allies, for a governing majority in parliament.

Israelis cane vote until 10 p.m. (2000 GMT , when media can publish the first exit polls and signal whether the deadlock has been broken. More stalemate could push Israel, where a 2020 budget is still pending, further into economic limbo.

The candidates were more upbeat than Rivlin, who, as president, will guide any coalition talks in the weeks ahead.

Voting in his hometown outside Tel Aviv, Gantz told reporters: “I really hope that in the coming weeks, following the results, we can put Israel on a new path.”

Netanyahu, who voted in Jerusalem, said: “Go vote. It’s a proud day.”

He said Israel had taken all precautions need to control the spread of the coronavirus and added: “People can go and vote with complete confidence.”

Turnout figures will be watched closely, particularly given concern over the global outbreak and accusations of malicious rumours about contamination in areas seen as strongholds for particular parties.

Voters under home-quarantine, such as those who have recently travelled back to Israel from coronavirus hot spots, can attend special polling stations if they wear a surgical mask and show no sign of the disease.

Israel’s economy has weathered the political turmoil, with growth strong and the labour market tight. But the longer the stalemate continues, the heavier the toll, including the lack of new money for health, education, welfare or infrastructure projects until an annual budget is approved by parliament.

Netanyahu’s battle to win an unprecedented fifth term has become more complicated since the last election as he has been indicted on charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud over allegations he granted state favours worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Israeli media barons in return for gifts and favourable coverage.

Netanyahu, who dismisses the accusations, is due to go on trial on March 17, when post-election coalition wheeling and dealing is likely to be in full swing.

‘THE DEFENDANT’

Playing the character card against Netanyahu, Gantz has dubbed him “the defendant” and alleged that he sought to retain power to promote legislation that would bar authorities from putting a sitting prime minister on trial.

Netanyahu has portrayed Gantz, 60, as a “coward” incapable of confronting the many dangers Israel faces in a tense region and has suggested he is hiding secrets that would open him to blackmail by its foe Iran.

Each man says the other is lying and unfit to serve.

Drawing accusations of racism, Netanyahu has played on many Israelis’ suspicions about the loyalty of the country’s Arab minority, which makes up 21% of the population.

Gantz, Netanyahu said, would seek Arab politicians’ support in parliament to form a government and they would tie his hands in any military action in the region.

Netanyahu hopes a peace plan that U.S. President Donald Trump presented in January will give him a boost at the polls, saying its recognition of Israeli sovereignty over settlements in the occupied West Bank will enable him to annex them within weeks of the election.

Palestinians have rejected the U.S. blueprint as leaving them with only “Swiss cheese” wedges of territory for a state they seek to create in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch Editing by David Goodman, Robert Birsel and Timothy Heritage)

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