Israelis voted Monday in an unprecedented third election in less than a year to decide whether longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stays in power despite his upcoming trial on corruption charges.
Netanyahu, the longest-serving leader in Israeli history, has been a caretaker prime minister for more than a year as a divided country has weathered two inconclusive votes and prolonged political paralysis. With opinion polls forecasting another deadlock, Netanyahu is seeking a late surge in support to score a parliamentary majority along with other nationalist parties that will give him a fourth consecutive term in office and fifth overall.
He faces a stiff challenge once again from retired military chief Benny Gantz, whose centrist Blue and White party is running even with Netanyahu's Likud on a campaign message that the prime minister is unfit to lead because of the serious charges against him.
Both parties appear unable to form a coalition with their traditional allies. With the prospect of a unity government between them seemingly off the table after a particularly nasty campaign, the vote may well turn into merely a preamble to another election.
"I hope that today marks the start of a healing process, where we can begin living together again," Gantz said upon casting his ballot in his hometown of Rosh Ha'ayin in central Israel, warning voters not to "get drawn in by the lies or by the violence" after the acrimonious campaign.
There was little fanfare ahead of the vote, with a noticeable absence of campaign posters on the streets and public rallies that typically characterize the run-up to Israeli elections.
With voter fatigue clearly a factor, turnout could prove to be decisive. The elections commission said 56.3% of eligible voters had cast ballots by 6 p.m. (1600 GMT, 11 a.m. EST), the highest turnout by that time of the day since 1999.
Election day is a national holiday in Israel and the country usually boasts one of the highest turnouts among Western democracies. But the second repeat vote and fears over the coronavirus, which has so far been kept largely in check, look to hinder participation.
Israel set up some 15 stations to allow voting by hundreds of Israelis who have been ordered to remain in home quarantine after possible exposure to the virus.
"The corona thing is completely under control. Today we've taken all the precautions that are necessary. People can go and vote with complete confidence," Netanyahu said after casting his ballot in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has tried to portray himself as a statesman who is uniquely qualified to lead the country through challenging times. Gantz has tried to paint him as divisive and scandal-plagued, offering himself as a calming influence and an honest alternative.
President Donald Trump's Mideast initiative, which strongly favors Israel and was rejected by the Palestinians, had been expected to give Netanyahu a major boost. But both Netanyahu and Gantz welcomed the initiative, and it appears to have had little impact on voters.
Gantz says he favors a national unity government with Likud, but only if it rids itself of its longtime leader because of the corruption charges against him. Netanyahu, who still enjoys widespread support in his party, insists he must remain prime minister in any unity deal.
With his career on the line, Netanyahu has campaigned furiously. He's taken a hard turn to the right in hopes of rallying his nationalist base, promising to expand and annex West Bank settlements. In a campaign marked by ugly smears, Netanyahu's surrogates have spread unfounded allegations that Gantz is corrupt, unstable and susceptible to blackmail by Iran.
The most recent attempt appears to have backfired. Recordings have revealed Netanyahu lied on live television about not being involved in a plot to secretly record a Gantz consultant disparaging his boss. Channel 12 broadcast audio Sunday night of Netanyahu speaking to the rabbi who clandestinely recorded the Gantz adviser and discussing when it would be leaked.
Netanyahu is desperate to score a narrow 61-seat majority in parliament with his hard-line religious and nationalist allies before going on trial March 17. Netanyahu has failed to secure himself immunity from prosecution, but with a strong hold on power he could seek other avenues to derail the legal proceedings against him.
Netanyahu is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust stemming from accusations he accepted lavish gifts from billionaire friends and promised to promote advantageous legislation for a major newspaper in exchange for favorable coverage. He vowed to prove his innocence in court.
Maverick politician Avigdor Lieberman once again looms as a potential kingmaker, with neither Netanyahu nor Gantz able to secure a parliamentary majority without his support. Lieberman has not committed himself to either candidate, although he has promised there will not be a fourth election.
Voting began at 7 a.m. with exit polls expected at 10 p.m. (2000 GMT, 3 p.m. EST). Official results are expected overnight.
That's when the real jockeying may get underway, with attention shifting to President Reuven Rivlin, who is responsible for choosing a candidate for prime minister. He is supposed to select the leader who he believes has the best chance of putting together a stable coalition. The honor usually goes to the head of the largest party, but not necessarily. Just as important is the number of lawmakers outside the party who recommend the candidate.
Rivlin's selection will then have up to six weeks to form a coalition. If he fails, another candidate then has 28 days to form an alternative coalition. If that effort fails, new elections would be forced.
"This is usually a holiday, but to be honest, I have no festivity in me, just a sense of deep shame before you, the citizens of Israel," Rivlin said as he voted. "We don't deserve another horrible and filthy campaign like the one that ends today and we don't deserve this endless instability. We deserve a government that will work for us."
A member of a council that advises Iran's supreme leader died Monday from the new coronavirus, becoming the highest-ranking official within the Islamic Republic's Shiite theocracy to be killed by the illness ravaging the country.
The death of Expediency Council member Mohammad Mirmohammadi came as Iran announced the virus had killed at least 66 people among 1,501 confirmed cases. There are now 1,700 cases of the new coronavirus across the Mideast. Of those outside Iran, most link back to the Islamic Republic, which after China has the highest death toll from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus.
After downplaying the coronavirus as recently as last week, Iranian authorities now say they have plans to potentially mobilize 300,000 soldiers and volunteers to confront the virus.
Yet experts still worry Iran's percentage of deaths to infections, now around 4.4%, is much higher than other countries, suggesting the number of infections in Iran may be much higher than current figures show. Saudi Arabia and Jordan meanwhile announced their first cases of the virus Monday.
Mirmohammadi, 71, died at a north Tehran hospital of the virus, state media said. His mother had reportedly died of the coronavirus in recent days as well.
Mirmohammadi, though not particularly well-known to the Iranian public, served as a top official in the presidencies of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Khamenei, now the country's supreme leader. The state-run IRNA news agency described Mirmohammadi, whose father also once served on the Expediency Council, as having a close relationship to Khamenei.
The Expediency Council advises the supreme leader, as well as settles disputes between parliament and the Guardian Council, Iran's constitutional watchdog that also oversees the country's elections. The 45-member Expediency Council, which also includes former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and officials close to Khamenei, last met in February with Mirmohammadi on hand.
Mirmohammadi's death makes him the highest-ranking official within Iran's theocracy to be killed by the virus. The virus earlier killed Hadi Khosroshahi, Iran's former ambassador to the Vatican, as well as a recently elected member of parliament.
Iran stands alone in how the virus has affected its government, even compared to hard-hit China, the epicenter of the outbreak.
Those sick include Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, better known as "Sister Mary," the English-speaking spokeswoman for the students who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and sparked the 444-day hostage crisis, state media reported. Also sick is Iraj Harirchi, the head of an Iranian government task force on the coronavirus who tried to downplay the virus before falling ill.
Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei, himself addressing journalists by teleconference over concerns about the virus, acknowledged the challenges remaining for the Islamic Republic.
"We will have two difficult weeks ahead," he said.
Health Ministry spokesman Ali Reza Raisi, who gave the new figures for the virus Monday, said that Iran's armed forces and its Basij, the all-volunteer arm of its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, stood ready to mobilize 300,000 troops to help combat the virus. Already, Guard vehicles have been spraying disinfectant on streets in major cities.
Those troops would help sanitize public areas, as well as running down leads on who infected people had contacted before falling ill, Raisi said.
Judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, no relation to the health ministry official, acknowledged some people had begun stockpiling medical supplies for profit in the country. He urged prosecutors to show "no mercy for hoarders."
"Hoarding sanitizing items is playing with people's lives and it is not ignorable," Raisi said.
Aid has been reaching Iran, despite international firms worried about conducting business with Tehran after the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from Iran's nuclear deal with world powers and imposed sanctions. Some 7.5 tons of aid from the World Health Organization flew into Iran from the United Arab Emirates. The WHO said a team of experts flew into Tehran Monday evening to help local health workers respond to the outbreak.
Meanwhile, France, Germany and the United Kingdom said they would urgently fly laboratory tests for the virus into Iran, as well as protective body suits and gloves. They offered close to 5 million euros ($5.5 million) in financial support as well.
While Iran has closed schools and universities to stop the spread of the virus, major Shiite shrines have remained open despite civilian authorities calling for them to be closed. The holy cities of Mashhad and Qom in particular, both home to shrines, have been hard-hit by the virus. Shiites often touch and kiss shrines as a sign of their faith. Authorities have been cleaning the shrines with disinfectants.
Police have arrested one man who posted a video showing himself licking the metal enclosing the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, the most-important Shiite saint buried in the country, according to reports by semiofficial news agencies. In the video, the man said he licked the metal to "allow others to visit the shrine with peace of mind."
Meanwhile Monday, the virus outbreak saw itself dragged into the yearslong boycott of Qatar by four Arab nations over a political dispute.
A prominent columnist at Dubai's government-owned Al-Bayan newspaper on Twitter falsely described the virus as being a plot by Qatar to hurt the upcoming Expo 2020 world's fair in Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Noura al-Moteari later described the tweet as "satire" to The Associated Press after it gained widespread attention.
The Dubai Media Office similarly described the tweet as being written in a "cynical style" while distancing the Arabic-language daily from al-Moteari.
"Noura is a freelance writer and is not an employee of Al-Bayan nor does she represent the publication's views," it told the AP. "That being said, this has no relevance to any social media policy being practiced by the publication nor the state."
The tweet comes after Qatar expressed disappointment Sunday that nearly all of its Gulf neighbors snubbed invitations to attend the weekend peace signing ceremony between the U.S. and the Taliban.
Iran's health ministry on Sunday raised the nationwide death toll from the new coronavirus to 54 as the number of confirmed infected cases jumped overnight by more than half to 978 people.
The ministry's spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said new cases were confirmed in a number of cities, including Mashhad, which is home to Iran's most important Shiite shrine that attracts pilgrims from across the region. Calls by Iran's civilian government to clerics to close such shrines to to the public have not been uniformly followed. The shrine in Mashhad is among those that have remained open.
The new figures represent 11 more deaths than reported on Saturday and a whopping 385 new cases of infections. The new numbers, however, bring down the percentage of deaths to infections to around 5.5%. Still, that is much higher than other countries, suggesting the number of infections in Iran may be much higher than current figures show.
Jahanpour said in his daily briefing that the number of cases is "still inclining" across Iran.
Of the 385 newly confirmed cases, 170 are in Tehran, where schools and cinemas have remained closed for the second week. Public buses and the metro are still operating, but are being disinfected daily there. Authorities also doused busy streets in the capital.
The ministry spokesman said that 44 cases were also confirmed for the first time in the central Markazi province.
Also on Sunday, Iran's state broadcaster said all flights to and from the city of Rasht, the capital of nothern Gilan province, had been suspended. It gave no reasons why. The area of Gilan has some of Iran's highest number of infections after the capital, Tehran, and the holy city of Qom, the epicenter of the virus outbreak in the country.
The Revolutionary Guard said it plans to install mobile hospitals in Qom and Rasht cities, where the virus has infected high numbers of people. The Guard has also been photographed in state media leading disinfection efforts in some cities.
Ali Reza Jalali, the head of the Guard's medical college, told state TV that Iran is going through a "hard time and dangerous period." He claimed the group is researching a possible vaccine for the disease.
There is currently no vaccine for the novel coronavirus. Researchers around the world are working to find one, but anything widely usable is likely more than a year away.
The illness, known as COVID-19 and which originated in central China, has infected at least seven government officials in Iran, including one of its vice presidents and a senior health ministry official.
After days of assurances that the virus was largely under control, officials recently acknowledged Iran is preparing for the possibility of "tens of thousands" of people getting tested for the virus.
The first cases were not reported in Iran until Feb. 19, the same day that the two elderly infected people died. Since then, of the more than 1,100 cases in the Middle East, the majority trace back to Iran. Cases from Iran have been reported in Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
Iraq's Health Ministry announced there were 19 confirmed virus cases in the country, after six more discoveries were made Sunday, including four in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah near the Iranian border.
Iraq, which shares a huge border with Iran and relies on Iranian pilgrims for religious tourism, has banned Iranians from traveling to the country and closed schools and universities until March 10.
Starting on Sunday, all nurseries in the UAE licensed by the education ministry were closed for at least two weeks to limit the spread of the virus, and Kuwait suspended school until March 12. Lebanon, which has 10 confirmed cases, ordered all nurseries, schools and universities shut until March 8.
The virus has infected more than 86,000 people worldwide and caused more than 2,900 deaths since emerging in China. Iran has the world's highest death toll outside of China, where there has been 2,870 deaths among close to 80,000 cases.
The outbreak in Iran has prompted its neighbors to seal their borders to Iranians, while other Gulf states have halted flights to Iran. On Saturday, the U.S. announced heightened warnings about travel to certain regions of Italy and South Korea, as well as a ban on travel to Iran, due to the virus.
Ali Ahmadi, a resident in Tehran, said the U.S. has already made it difficult for Iranians, including its scientists, to travel there.
"Now that the virus has appeared, we expect nothing less from America," he said, expressing widespread frustration with U.S. policies on Iran.
Islam's holiest sites in Saudi Arabia have been closed to foreign pilgrims to limit the spread of the virus. The kingdom does not have any reported cases of the virus, and has halted all fights to and from China and Iran.
One of the most important Shiite shrines in the world in Iraq's Najaf city has also closed to Iranian pilgrims after a student from Iran studying there was confirmed to have the highly infectious virus.
Saeed Moghaddam, also in Tehran, said Iranians are suffering because of a virus that came from China
"We are not the cause of this virus spreading in other countries. We are battling with this ourselves," he said.
Also, Sudanese authorities on Sunday said the United Arab Emirates was helping evacuate some 160 Sudanese students from Wuhan, the city at the center of the virus outbreak in China. The evacuation was scheduled Sunday but moved to Tuesday due to logistical reasons, they said.
It was unclear whether the students would be quarantined upon return in Sudan or the UAE, which has also helped evacuate Yemeni students from Wuhan.
Israel on Wednesday advised its citizens to reconsider all foreign travel amid the global spread of the new coronavirus that was first reported in China.
The Health Ministry also ordered people to avoid travel to Italy and said anyone returning from there would be required to enter home quarantine for 14 days. That rule will take effect on Sunday.
In a statement, the ministry said people should "consider the necessity of traveling abroad in general, in addition to the requirement for people to go into isolation (quarantine) when returning from certain countries."
It also urged people to avoid international conferences.
Israel has already cancelled all flights to and from China and mandated 14 days of home quarantine for travelers from a number of Asian countries.
Israel has reported two infections of the coronavirus, which causes a potentially fatal illness known as COVID-19. Both were passengers who were flown home and immediately placed in isolation after being on a cruise ship that was quarantined in Japan.
The outbreak has infected more than 80,000 people globally and killed more than 2,700.
Royal Jordanian Airlines on Wednesday said it has suspended its Amman-Rome flights, starting from Feb. 26, 2020, until further notice.
"At this stage, RJ (Royal Jordanian Airlines) is also consolidating several flights from Amman to its stations in the Far East, bringing the average of cancellations of weekly Asian operations to up to 50 percent," it said in a statement.
The decisions are aimed at the safety of travelers in light of the increasing numbers of infections with coronavirus in Italy and some Asian countries, RJ President Stefan Pichler said in the statement.