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EXPLAINER: Israeli election could yield familiar outcome

JERUSALEM — Israel is holding its fifth national election in less than four years, and once again the race is turning into a referendum on the fitness of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to govern.

Netanyahu campaigned while he was on trial on corruption charges. As Israel’s opposition leader, he has portrayed himself as the victim of a political witch hunt and has vowed to reform a legal system he sees as deeply biased against him. His main opponent, Acting Prime Minister Yair Lapid, is marketing himself as a voice of decency and national unity.

In Israel’s fragmented political system, neither Netanyahu nor Lapid are expected to win an outright majority in the Knesset or 120-seat parliament. That means everyone must turn to smaller allies to secure the 61 seats needed to form a new government. Opinion polls say the race is too close to predict.

Here’s a look at the possible results of Tuesday’s election:

NETANYAHU WINS. Netanyahu’s Likud party and its allies, an extremist ultra-nationalist party and a pair of ultra-Orthodox religious parties, are expected to come close to winning a parliamentary majority in polls. If they succeed, Israel’s next government will be a tight but cohesive and well-disciplined coalition poised to take a hard line against the Palestinians, including Israel’s own Arab minority, who are ceding Orthodox control over many aspects of daily life consolidate and attack the Palestinians legal order of the country.

One of Netanyahu’s main partners, religious Zionism, is Itamar Ben-Gvir, a lawmaker who has called for the deportation of Arab politicians and has drawn a pistol in public clashes with Palestinians. Another high-ranking figure in the party once compared gay men to wild animals. He later apologized but repeatedly made anti-gay comments, saying he opposed “LGBT culture”.

Netanyahu’s allies have indicated they will seek to take over the process of appointing judges and giving parliament the power to overturn Supreme Court rulings. That could pave the way for Netanyahu’s corruption allegations to be dismissed.

Justice Minister Gideon Saar, a former Netanyahu ally turned bitter rival, says a Likud victory will mean “regime change” for Israel. “They don’t want evolution. They want a revolution that destroys the independence of the courts and prosecutors,” he says.

LAPID WINS. Lapid, the founder and leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, faces a more difficult task than Netanyahu. His party is expected to finish a distant second behind the Likud and, with its current allies, appears poised to fall short of a parliamentary majority. That would require some creative thinking.

Lapid was the mastermind behind assembling the outgoing coalition — a patchwork quilt of small- and mid-sized parties that banded together last year to oust the longtime Likud leader. But the members of this alliance, which included the first Arab party to sit in an Israeli government, had little in common. The coalition was torn apart by power struggles after only a year in power.

Even if Lapid pulls off a miracle, he will again find it difficult to find common ground among members that include Arabs, secular and peaceful Jewish parties that support peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and combative hardliners opposed to Palestinian independence .

GANTZ HAS A CHANCE. Since entering politics in 2018, former military chief Benny Gantz has seen his fortune rise and fall. Initially viewed as the great hope of overthrowing Netanyahu, Gantz later disappointed his supporters by entering into a disastrous and short-lived power-sharing agreement with him. Gantz, currently defense minister, has now carved a niche for himself as head of a middle-class centrist party.

With a small Arab party that will not support either Netanyahu or Lapid, it is possible that neither side will gain a majority.

This is where Gantz could emerge as the ruler – and even the unlikely winner.

Gantz appears to be the only candidate in the anti-Netanyahu bloc that has any crossover appeal. He could potentially steal votes from Likud to prevent Netanyahu from gaining a majority. And if that happens, he might also try to lure ultra-Orthodox parties away from Netanyahu and into a coalition with Lapid.

RETURN TO THE DRAWING BOARD. The parties have almost three months to cobble together a new coalition. If they fail, Israel will return to the polls early next year and do it all over again. Aside from costing millions of shekels, the elections have drained Israelis and undermined their confidence in the country’s democratic institutions.

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