Israelis started voting in the country’s fourth parliamentary election in two years on Tuesday, a highly charged referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s divisive rule.
Polls expect a close race between supporters of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and those who want “anyone but Bibi,” as he is called.
Candidates made their final drive in recent days with a series of TV interviews and public appearances at shopping malls and outdoor marketplaces, facing an electorate worn down by a series of campaigns and the coronavirus pandemic. With a relentless stream of get-out-the-vote messages that made mobile phones ding and buzz at all hours, the campaigns gradually invaded people’s personal space.
Netanyahu has positioned himself as a world leader who is ideally suited to guide Israel through its many security and diplomatic challenges. He has based his reelection campaign on Israel’s successful coronavirus vaccination campaign, as well as last year’s diplomatic agreements with four Arab states.
Netanyahu’s critics accuse him of mismanaging the coronavirus pandemic for the better part of a year. They say he refused to impose lockdown restrictions on his ultra-Orthodox political allies, allowing the virus to spread, and they point to the country’s still-dangerous economic situation, which includes a double-digit unemployment rate. They also say that Netanyahu is unfit to rule when facing numerous corruption allegations, which he dismisses as a witch hunt.
Up to 15% of the electorate is required to vote outside their home districts, in a larger-than-usual batch of absentee balloting to satisfy those infected with the coronavirus or in quarantine. The government is deploying special polling stations, including cars, to ensure that they can vote in a secure environment.
Since those votes are counted separately in Jerusalem, the final results will take days to come in. Given the close race, the large number of undecided voters, and a number of minor parties struggling to cross the 3.25 percent threshold for entrance into parliament, predicting the result before the final count could be difficult.
Israelis vote for parties rather than individuals. In Israel’s 72-year history, no single party list of candidates has been able to form a governing majority.
Netanyahu’s Likud faction, as well as those led by his opponents, will be looking for coalition partners among smaller, aligned parties. The group that can form a majority coalition will form the next government, which is likely to take several weeks.
The collapse of an emergency government created last May by Netanyahu and his main rival to deal with the coronavirus pandemic triggered Tuesday’s election. The government’s inability to agree on a budget in December triggered elections, which were triggered by infighting within the coalition.
Netanyahu is aiming to form a coalition with his hardline nationalist and religious allies. A pair of ultra-Orthodox parties and a minor religious group with overtly racist and homophobic candidates are among them.
Netanyahu’s opponents accuse him of triggering the country’s paralysis over the last two years in order to form a more advantageous coalition that would give him immunity or save him from prosecution.
Yair Lapid, Israel’s opposition leader, has emerged as the leading centrist alternative to Netanyahu, with his Yesh Atid faction.
Netanyahu also faces criticism from a number of former partners who have formed their own political parties after acrimonious splits with the prime minister.
Gideon Saar, a former Likud protege who established “New Hope,” is one of them. He claims the party is a nationalist alternative free of corruption allegations and the cult of personality that he claims holds Likud in control.
Naftali Bennett, the head of the Yamina party and a former Netanyahu aide, may be the kingmaker. Bennett, a hard-line nationalist who served as Netanyahu’s education and defense ministers, hasn’t ruled out forming a coalition with the unpopular prime minister, which would enable him to court both sides in possible coalition talks.
After years of stalled peace talks, personality politics has taken over the race and there has been almost no mention of the Palestinians.
Voter fatigue, according to analysts, would lead to lower turnout, which was 71 percent in the most recent election a year ago.
Netanyahu’s religious and nationalist backers are generally committed voters. Arab voters, on the other hand, are predicted to stay home in greater numbers this time due to the disintegration of the umbrella “Joint List” faction. Voters in the more liberal and secular areas around Tel Aviv are also less likely to vote.
If these patterns continue, Netanyahu will benefit. However, unlike last year’s elections, the prime minister is without one primary ally: former President Donald Trump, whose support he enlisted in previous elections by placing huge billboards on highways and high-rises depicting the two of them together.
With President Joe Biden now in charge of the White House, Netanyahu has scarcely addressed him. After reaching out to the representatives of many other nations, Biden called Netanyahu, and Israel’s supporters started to argue that the delay smacked of a snub. The two men insist that their friendship is still solid.