Israel voted in its second election in five months on Tuesday that will decide whether or not to extend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's term as the country's longest-serving prime minister despite corruption allegations against him.
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. Netanyahu voted in Jerusalem alongside his wife Sara and said he expected a close election, calling on Israelis to turn out in large numbers.
Gantz voted in his hometown of Rosh Haayin near Tel Aviv and called on the country to reject corruption and "extremism". He said, "We want new hope. We are voting today for a change."
A factor that played spoilsport in Netanyahu's attempt to form the government in April this year was ex-defence minister Avigdor Lieberman and Netanyahu's former ally-turned-rival refusing to support the Netanyahu's Likud party in a coalition. Reportedly, Lieberman could play a kingmaker role with his campaign to "make Israel normal again."
"As of now, both the caretaker government and the Opposition have 60 seats each in Parliament " on the government side, the biggest parties are Likud (38 seats), and Shas and United Torah Judaism (8 each); on the Opposition side, there are the Blue and White centrist-liberal alliance led by a former Chief of the Israel Defence Forces Benny Gantz (35 seats), the centrist Yesh Atid (15), and Resilience (14)," The Indian Express reported.
Netanyahu has become Israel's longest-serving prime minister with his right-wing leadership and by repeatedly besting rivals with deft political moves, but he will have to pull another rabbit out of the hat in Tuesday's elections.
The 69-year-old is fighting his second election in five months with a potential corruption indictment looming.
After April polls, Netanyahu suffered one of the biggest defeats of his political career when he failed to form a coalition although his Likud party along with its right-wing and religious allies came out on top. Netanyahu has spent years outlasting opponents and he could well do so again.
He has campaigned with a combination of divisive populism and attempts to portray himself as a world statesman by talking up his relationships with foreign leaders, including US president Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The burly son of a historian with his familiar grey comb-over has entrenched himself at the top so firmly he has been labelled "King Bibi", using his nickname dating to childhood. Few doubt his political effectiveness. Much of his popularity has to do with another nickname " "Mr. Security" " in a country where such issues are always on voters' minds, AFP reported.
Netanyahu frequently talks openly about Israel's air war in Syria against Israel's archfoe Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah. He generally avoids talking about the Palestinians apart from security operations. Netanyahu was born in Tel Aviv in 1949 less than 18 months after Israel's creation.
Netanyahu's career took off when he was posted to the Israeli embassy in Washington and later served as ambassador to the United Nations. He became Israel's youngest prime minister in 1996, at 46, but was defeated three years later. Netanyahu would return to power in 2009 and has remained in office ever since.
Gantz, Netanyahu's main challenger in Tuesday's elections, is a respected former military chief who says he can restore honour to the premier's office. Gantz, a 60-year-old ex-paratrooper, had no previous political experience when he declared himself as Netanyahu's electoral rival in December.
The head of the centrist Blue and White alliance has since presented himself as someone who can "heal" divisions in Israeli society, which he says have been exacerbated by Netanyahu. For many of his supporters, he is the opposite of Netanyahu, though more in personality than in terms of policies, which the two share to a large degree, particularly on security.
His alliance and Netanyahu's Likud each won 35 seats in April elections, but the premier was given the chance to form a coalition due to support from smaller right-wing and religious parties. Netanyahu failed to do so and opted instead for another election, despite facing potential indictment for corruption.
Gantz was born on 9 June, 1959, in Kfar Ahim, a southern Israeli village that his immigrant parents, both Holocaust survivors, helped to establish. He joined the army in 1977, completing the tough selection course for the paratroopers.
He went on to command Shaldag, an air force special operations unit. In 1994, he returned to the army to command a brigade and then a division in the occupied West Bank. According to his official army biography, he was Israel's military attache to the United States from 2005 until 2009.
He was chief of staff from 2011 to 2015, when he retired, and has boasted in video clips of the number of Palestinian militants killed and targets destroyed under his command in the 2014 war with Gaza's Islamist Hamas rulers.
Gantz has a BA in history from Tel Aviv University, a master's degree in political science from Haifa University and a master's in national resource management from the National Defense University in the United States.
A security hawk, he is determined to keep the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank under Israeli control and maintain Israeli sovereignty over mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem.
Liberman, the gruff hardline leader of the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, has long relied on support from Israelis who, like him, have roots in the former Soviet Union but polls show the ex-defence minister has widened his appeal recently, making him a potential kingmaker in the elections.
He has done so in part with his stand against ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, whom he accuses of seeking to force religious law onto Israel's secular population. In many ways, Lieberman is the reason Israel is holding another election only five months after the polls in April, unprecedented in the country's history.
Lieberman refused to agree to a coalition deal that did not include legislation that would seek to have the ultra-Orthodox serve in the military. That was a deal-breaker for the ultra-Orthodox parties, who would have been an important part of the coalition.
Lieberman resigned as defence minister in November over a Gaza ceasefire deal which he called a "capitulation to terror".
With inputs from AFP