Israel polls set to open in key election

Opinion polls indicate tight race between PM Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party and centre-left Zionist Union.

    Israel polls set to open in key election
    Centre-left Zionist Union lead by Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog is ahead of the ruling Likud party [Reuters]

    Haifa - Candidates have made their final appeal to the public ahead of Israel's parliamentary elections, with the latest opinion poll putting the ruling Likud party behind the centre-left Zionist Union.

    Israelis will cast their votes on Tuesday at more than 10,000 voting stations across the Middle Eastern country to elect 120 deputies for parliament, with polling stations due to open at 7:00am (0500 GMT).

    Main players


    • The Likud party is led by Prime Minister BenjaminNetanyahu, who started the campaign all but assuring that Likud would stay inoffice. But recent polls have rattled that confidence.
    • Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog is a blend of Herzog'sLabor Party, and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's Hatnua party. It's analliance of two parties. The alliance is pushing for renewed peace with thePalestinians.
    • Yair Lapid, a former TV star, leads Yesh Atid. Thecentrist party joined Likud in 2013 as its senior coalition partner.
    • Kulanu is a new party headed by former Likud ministerMoshe Kahlon. He's campaigning on economics, and could become kingmaker of acoalition government.
    • Arab-backed parties led by Ayman Odeh have formed analliance - the Joint List. Representing Israeil's 20 percent Arab minority, itcould emerge as the third-largest bloc.
    • On the far right there's Yisrael Beitenu - led by ForeignMinister Avigdor Lieberman. The party's popularity has fallen in the polls since breaking an alliance with Likud, and after a number of corruption scandals.



    More than 5.8 million Israeli citizens are automatically registered and eligible to vote in the 2015 elections, according to Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Soldiers, prison inmates and the disabled are all provided access to voting stations.

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled out a Palestinian state if he is voted back into power, but that has not helped boost his electoral prospects. According to the opinion poll by Israeli daily Haaretz, the Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog is ahead of Likud by four seats.

    National elections are held every four years, unless Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, votes to dissolve the government and hold new elections. In early December, Prime Minister Netanyahu fired Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid and announced elections for the 20th Knesset.

    Livni and Herzog, who have been leading the centre-left electoral alliance, have stated that they will take turns as the country's prime minister if the Zionist Union wins.

    Ella Doron, a resident of Tel Aviv, says she supports Meretz, a left-wing Zionist party. "I believe they are very hard working and excellent people who have shown more than once that they deserve a chance," she told Al Jazeera.

    Time for change

    Alluding to the current polls, Doron said that she prefers a Zionist Union-led government that does not include Netanyahu's Likud in the coalition. "Netanyahu is just bad for everybody - his people, our neighbours and our international relations," she said. "He's not working for us."

    Former Israeli President Shimon Peres publicly endorsed the Zionist Union’s Herzog.

    Zionist Union candidate Manuel Trajtenberg said that Israel "is at a crucial junction right now. We have hit a dead end in terms of socio-economic issues, as well as our international diplomatic relations. Change has to come".

    "With all these defects, Israel is a very vibrant democracy and people have a good sense of knowing when it's time to change," Trajtenberg told Al Jazeera. "I trust in the people and the democratic tradition."

    Analysts explain that Likud's performance may be harmed by the emergence of new right-wing parties, such as the Kulanu party, which draws from Likud's traditional support base.

    "The question now is whether it will weaken Likud enough to further fragment the party’s dominant position on the right," Dahlia Scheindlin, an independent pollster, told Al Jazeera.

    "If it further fragments it, it could mean that Likud may not be able to [catch up to] the Zionist Union," she added.

    Ostensibly attempting to mitigate the potentially harmful effects, Netanyahu offered to appoint Moshe Kahlon, Kulana’s leader, the role of finance minister. Kahlon refused to endorse Netanyahu as prime minister, however, and rebuffed his offer.

    Asked about expectations for voting day, Netanyahu's office and the Likud party spokesperson both declined to comment.

    In the 2013 elections, which brought Netanyahu to power, voter turnout reached 67.7 percent. Participation is expected to hit similar levels this year.

    Arab voters

    The Joint Arab List, a coalition of four Arab-majority parties in Israel, is expected to perform well among Arab voters.

    "I will vote for the Joint List because this is a new development for Arab voters in Israel," Mohammed Abu Toameh, 22, told Al Jazeera. "It’s a huge step for us and it could be very effective. It’s not just unity, this is our chance."

    A vocal group of Palestinian activists calling for a boycott of the Knesset have also gained support this election season, partially due to Israel's brutal 51-day war with the Gaza Strip last summer and the slew of discriminatory laws that have targeted the Arab minority in recent years.

    Nonetheless, the coalition enjoys broad support among the Arab public and is expected to gain 13 seats in the next government, according to recent polls.

    We will not be part of the coalition that continues the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza and continues to discriminate against our community

    Dr Yousef Jabareen, Arab Joint List candidate

    Dr Yousef Jabareen, a senior lecturer at Haifa University and number 10 on the Arab Joint List, says that his party expects more seats than polling suggests. "We aim to represent our voters and the issues facing our community," he told Al Jazeera, adding that their first goal was to "block any right-wing government" and consolidate considerable influence in the opposition.

    "We will not be part of the coalition that continues the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza and continues to discriminate against our community [in Israel]," Jabareen added.

    Hesitant to make predictions about the number of seats the Zionist Union will obtain on voting day, candidate Trajtenberg declared his certainty that his party will lead the next government.

    "The Israeli people will reflect their desire for change in the ballot box," he said. "I think we are seeing the end of the Netanyahu era."

    Back in Tel Aviv, Doron remarked that Israel’s dramatic political landscape has become ripe ground for incitement. "We have to live with each other after these elections," she said. "People are very torn right now."

    Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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