Israelis voted on Tuesday in the country’s fourth parliamentary election in two years — a highly charged referendum on the divisive rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Opinion polls forecast a tight race between those who support Israel’s longest-serving leader and those who want “anyone but Bibi” as he is widely known.
“Vote, vote, vote, vote, vote,” Netanyahu said after casting his ballot in Jerusalem, his wife, Sara, at his side. He called the occasion a “festival of democracy”.
Polling stations opened across Israel and in the occupied West Bank, with some 6.5 million registered voters set to deliver a result that could prolong the worst period of political gridlock in the country’s history.
“This the moment of truth for the State of Israel,” said Netanyahu rival Yair Lapid as he voted in Tel Aviv.
One truth: Israelis are weary of the do-overs. The balloting, like Israel’s world-leading vaccination campaign, got good reviews for organisation — if only because everyone involved has had lots of practice, with the potential of even more if the results do not produce a governing majority. That answer might not be clear for weeks.
“It would be better if we didn’t have to vote, you know, four times in two years,” said Jerusalem resident Bruse Rosen after casting his ballot. “It’s a little bit tiring.”
The Israeli electorate is deeply polarised with supporters hailing Netanyahu, 71, as “King Bibi”, and opponents holding up placards calling him “Crime Minister”.
Lapid’s Yesh Atid party has emerged as the main centrist alternative to Netanyahu’s Likud. He reflected the race’s stark rhetoric when he offered himself as an alternative to a “government of darkness and racism”.
Netanyahu also faces challenges from a number of onetime allies who have formed their own parties after bitter breakups with the prime minister.
They include former protege Gideon Saar, who broke away from Likud to form the New Hope. He said the party is a nationalist alternative unburdened by corruption charges and what he alleged is “a cult of personality” that keeps Likud in power.
Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, another former Netanyahu aide, could emerge as the kingmaker.
A hardline nationalist politician who was formerly Netanyahu’s education and defence minister, Bennett has not ruled out joining a coalition with the embattled prime minister, allowing him to court both sides in future coalition talks.
Race between ‘right and extreme right’
The personality politics has so overtaken the race, there has been almost no mention of the Palestinians after years of frozen peace talks.
The day before the vote, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh described the election as an “internal” matter for Israelis, but decried the effect on Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
“All their electoral campaigns were at the expense of our land and our people, and parties are competing over more land, more settlements,” he said.
In Gaza, Hazem Qassem, a spokesman for Hamas, said the Israeli election seemed to be taking place between the “right and extreme right”.
Israelis vote for parties, not individual candidates. In Israel’s 72-year history, no single-party list of candidates has been able to form a governing majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
Netanyahu has portrayed himself as a global statesman uniquely qualified to lead the country through its many security and diplomatic challenges.
He has made Israel’s coronavirus-vaccination campaign the centrepiece of his re-election bid and pointed to last year’s diplomatic agreements with four Arab states.
Opponents accuse Netanyahu of bungling the management of the coronavirus pandemic for most of the past year.
They say he failed to enforce lockdown restrictions on his ultraorthodox political allies, allowing the virus to spread, and point to the still-dire state of the economy and its double-digit unemployment rate.
Opponents also say Netanyahu is unfit to rule at a time when he is on trial for multiple corruption charges, a case he dismisses as a witch hunt.
Netanyahu has said he will not block the trial and looks forward to being exonerated, but critics suspect if he wins a majority, he may seek parliamentary action to delay or end the judicial process.
Tuesday’s election was triggered by the disintegration of an emergency government formed last May between Netanyahu and his chief rival Benny Gantz to manage the coronavirus pandemic. The alliance was plagued by infighting and elections were triggered by the government’s failure in December last year to agree on a budget.
What do the polls say?
Analysts expect voter fatigue to contribute to lower turnout which had been at 71 percent in the most recent election a year ago.
Netanyahu’s religious and nationalist allies tend to be highly motivated voters.
In contrast, Palestinian citizens of Israel, disappointed with the disintegration of the umbrella Joint List party, are expected to stay home in larger numbers this time around. Voters in the more liberal and secular areas around Tel Aviv also tend to have lower rates of participation.
Netanyahu’s Likud is expected to emerge as the biggest party, but falling short of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset and unable to easily form a coalition government – similar to the three previous elections.
That means Israel is looking at three possible outcomes: another coalition under Netanyahu, an ideologically divided government united only by its opposition to him, or a looming fifth election.
Al Jazeera’s Natasha Ghoneim, reporting from West Jerusalem, said the election is “essentially a referendum on Netanyahu” who is expected to prevail.
“He will not get that magic 61 seats in the Knesset that is needed to form a government outright,” she said. “It is expected he’ll get 30, maybe 33 seats and then once again – as he’s had to do in previous elections – he’ll have to cobble together a coalition as we’ve seen in the three previous elections.”
The Israeli military said on Tuesday night that a rocket was fired into southern Israel from Gaza a short while after Netanyahu toured the region on election day. The projectile landed in an open field, a statement said.
On the campaign trail, Netanyahu has highlighted his role in securing millions of vaccine doses from Pfizer, turning Israel into what he dubbed a “vaccination nation”.
In Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, Yonatan Meir, 34, said he would judge Netanyahu over “his whole era”, not the vaccine rollout.
“Actually, it didn’t affect my decision because I know that I won’t choose him,” he said. “But I think that the majority of people were very affected and were very impressed by his management of the whole crisis.”
While surveys show a small majority of Israelis want to see Netanyahu out of office, the fragmented opposition also has no clear path to power, with no single agreed candidate to lead the anti-Netanyahu camp.
Voting stations close at 10pm (20:00 GMT) and exit polls follow shortly thereafter. Final results are not expected at least until Friday.
‘Too much ego’
A polling booth worker, retired 65-year-old engineer Efraim Achtarzad, wearing a blue gown and plastic face shield, described the repeated elections as “a catastrophe”.
“We are burning money and nothing changes,” he said.
If Netanyahu cannot garner 61 seats this time and his opponents cannot unite, a fifth election is possible.
Political analyst Gideon Rahat said that may suit Netanyahu whose primary objective is to stay in power – if necessary as caretaker prime minister awaiting yet another round.
Netanyahu “can easily go to a fifth, sixth or seventh election”, Rahat said.
Amit Fischer, a 35-year-old PhD student and Lapid supporter, said he expected a fifth election.
“There are too many small parties, too much ego,” he said. “They won’t agree on anything.”