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Politically exhausted, Israelis head to the polls for 4th election in two years

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a COVID-19 vaccination center in Jerusalem last month.
(Alex Kolomoisky / Pool Photo)

Israeli voters started going to the polls Tuesday for the country’s fourth election in two years, a contest widely seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Nearly 6.6 million citizens, many of them feeling politically exhausted after the previous three elections, are eligible to vote for the 24th Knesset, or parliament.

Here’s a closer look at this election:

Going fourth

Tuesday’s vote is Israel’s fourth parliamentary election in two years. The national unity government formed in May 2020 by Netanyahu and his rival-turned-ally-turned-rival-again, Benny Gantz collapsed in December after seven months of infighting. The two had struck a power-sharing agreement that would have seen Gantz take over as prime minister in November 2021, but the parliament automatically dissolved after the government failed to pass a budget by a legally mandated deadline.

Main contenders

Netanyahu, who has been prime minister since 2009, seeks a decisive victory and promises to form a “full-on right-wing” government supported by his ultra-Orthodox allies and hard-line nationalists. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving premier, has campaigned aggressively as vaccinator-in-chief, claiming sole credit for the country’s successful efforts to inoculate the vast majority of adults against COVID-19.

In a blow to the religious establishment, Israel’s high court says converts through Judaism’s Reform and Conservative movements are indeed Jewish.

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Against him stands a loose coalition of opposition parties and disgruntled former lieutenants. Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition in the Knesset, is projected to head the largest of those parties and has cast himself in the final week of the campaign as Netanyahu’s main challenger. But his potential coalition partners in the anti-Netanyahu camp come from hawkish and dovish sides of the political spectrum, united only in their disdain for the prime minister. Bringing them together in a government may prove impossible.

Fitness to rule

Netanyahu has refused to step down while on trial for fraud, breach of trust and bribery charges. He was indicted in late 2019, and proceedings began shortly after he swore in his unity government last May. He has denied wrongdoing and says he’s the victim of a witch hunt by police, prosecutors and the media.

Demonstrators have staged weekly protests outside his residence in Jerusalem, calling on him to resign, for the past nine months. While voters may be weighing other issues — such as the economy, the conflict with the Palestinians, religion and state, relations with the U.S. and the Jewish diaspora — this election more than anything is a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness to rule and management of the pandemic.

Open field

All 120 seats in the Knesset are at stake. Thirty-eight parties are running, but only a handful are expected to cross the threshold of 3.25% of the vote needed to win the minimum four seats in parliament. These parties include Netanyahu’s Likud, Lapid’s Yesh Atid and New Hope, a party founded by a former Netanyahu confidant who shares his hard-line ideology but despises his autocratic leadership style. There are also midsize stalwarts such as the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties and the Joint List of Arab parties. A number of minuscule and often eccentric factions have little chance of getting in.

Israel boasts the world’s fastest COVID-19 vaccine rollout, with half the population inoculated. Reaching the other half presents challenges.

Turnout and fatigue

Compared to the U.S., Israel often has a relatively high voter turnout. Election day is officially a national holiday, a measure aimed at getting people to participate.

Turnout in the past three elections has crept up from 67.9% in April 2019 to 71% in March 2020. But voter fatigue in this fourth election cycle is high, and many voters are reported to remain undecided in the days before polls open.

Round 5?

No Israeli party has ever won an outright majority in parliament, which forces larger parties to cobble together ruling coalitions with smaller allies.

Reaching a final tally is expected to take longer than usual — perhaps up to a week — because of the extraordinary number of absentee ballots and the beginning of the Passover holiday next Sunday, normally a work day. Unlike in previous elections, people sick with COVID-19 or in quarantine will be casting “double envelope” ballots along with Israeli diplomats overseas, soldiers and prisoners. Those take longer to count because they’re sent to Jerusalem for tallying.

After the election, Israel’s president will meet with party heads and select the party he deems most capable of forming a coalition. That party, usually but not always the largest faction, then has four weeks to form a coalition. A new government will be given a four-year term, but disagreements between coalition parties often result in early elections.

Polls published in the run-up to Tuesday’s vote indicate the pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu blocs running neck and neck, but neither with a clear majority. The hard-line nationalist Yemina party has not said yet which camp it might join; its alliance with either side could prove decisive.

But if neither side manages to form a coalition, the country’s two-year-long political crisis could drag on and give rise to a fifth election.


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