JERUSALEM — For the fourth time in less than two years, Israelis voted on Tuesday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to hold on to power after a record-breaking 12 consecutive years in office.
Charged with alleged bribery and fraud, he refused to step down, polarizing the country between die-hard supporters and outraged opponents and sparking a political deadlock that prompted Israel to hold more elections often than any other great democracy.
Netanyahu no longer has the political gifts of former President Donald Trump and area code amplified. Instead, a world-leading COVID-19 vaccination campaign, and a fast one reopening The economy ahead of the Passover holiday this weekend has brought Netanyahu a wave of admiration that he hopes will lead him to victory.
“We went from slavery to freedom,” said retired postal worker and Netanyahu voter Herzel Guetta while vacationing in Jerusalem after a long period of lockdown, borrowing a phrase from the Passover story of the biblical exodus from Egypt . “He really cared.”
Even Israelis who want to depose him credit Bibi, Netanyahu’s popular nickname, for convincing Pfizer to choose Israel to host an early vaccine rollout, vaccinating more Israelis per capita than any other country.
“He came out as a genius with Korona. He opened up the economy with concerts. He’s proven himself with vaccines, one of the highest vaccination rates in the world,” said Shani Segalovich, 20, over lunch at a Jerusalem market. “I want change, but I have a feeling that Bibi will win.”
Polls predicted a close race, with Netanyahu holding a slight advantage over his rivals to form a far-right government of Jewish religious parties, far-right ultranationalist and anti-LGBTQ factions.
Such a government would advocate strengthening Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which the Biden administration and most countries oppose as an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. It could also seek to limit the powers of the judiciary, which Netanyahu claims was conspiring to oust him through his corruption trial, and pass legislation to help the prime minister evade prosecution.
Oren Ben Hakoon/AP
If Netanyahu fails to form a majority coalition of 61 MPs out of 120 in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, pollsters warn of another deadlock that would lead to an unprecedented fifth election. Because the alternative to a Netanyahu-led government is an incongruous gathering of malcontents.
These include former right-wing allies of Netanyahu, left, center and Arab parties, all opposed to Netanyahu but otherwise having little in common and at odds on everything from ideology to who should lead among them.
Netanyahu has gained momentum in part because he has fragmented his opposition.
Benny Gantz, the centrist former army chief of staff, has provided the most credible challenge to Netanyahu’s rise to power in the last three elections, but most of his supporters deserted him last year when he agreed to join Netanyahu in what has been dubbed an emergency pandemic – focused government. But Netanyahu called for new elections instead of maintaining an agreement to let Gantz take over as prime minister after 18 months.
Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel — who make up about 20% of the country — voted against Netanyahu in record numbers last year, helping to block his path to a right-wing government. But a LGBTQ rights debate and other disagreements within the Arab community shattered the joint coalition of Arab parties and helped Netanyahu woo some Arab voters.
“I believe his legal situation will force him to turn to the Arabs and embrace the Arab votes and he will advance projects for the Arabs in Israel,” said Naji Amer, a retired doctor in the Arab city of Kufr Qassem for the vote United Arab List, an Islamist party that may be willing to cooperate with Netanyahu.
What could tip the scales in Netanyahu’s favor is the fate of two small parties in the anti-Netanyahu camp, the left-wing Meretz and the centrist Blue and White, which scored dangerously low in the polls and risked not garnering enough votes to enter parliament get.
“It is enough that one of them does not … cross the threshold for Netanyahu to then have a majority government,” said Israeli pollster Camil Fuchs.
Election officials also warn that there could be attempts to delegitimize the results of the vote. Netanyahu’s son Yair, a fierce ally of his father who has circulated false conspiracy theories online, has questioned the impartiality of a member of Israel’s Electoral Commission, claiming the committee recently “stole” a vote.
Israel does not allow voting by post or by post, but in this election it allowed ballot boxes to be placed in retirement homes for the elderly so they would not be exposed to the crowds at the polling stations. Israel also set up a free shuttle service to designated polling stations for COVID-19 patients and quarantined Israelis. There were even drive-through polls.
Those votes will be sent to the Elections Committee headquarters in Jerusalem for counting, which officials expected to slow the final count. The committee said it does not expect to complete the count until Friday afternoon, just before the government closes for the Jewish Sabbath and Passover holiday.
No party is expected to win a majority of seats in the Knesset. Instead, Israel’s president must select a candidate to negotiate with other parties to form a majority coalition.
Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and blockaded Gaza do not have the right to vote in Israel, but they do written down Netanyahu’s campaign promises to retrospectively legalize unauthorized outposts of Israeli settlements, more than 100 of which are on the West Bank hills where Palestinians want independence.
“Although we consider these elections an internal matter, all of their campaigning has been at the expense of our country and our people, and the parties are competing for more land and more settlements,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said in a statement. “We condemn these frantic campaigns against our country, our sanctuaries and our people, and we demand that the world act to stop all of these processes.”
A print shop in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, whose workers are mostly Palestinian non-citizens, printed ballot paper for the election.