JERUSALEM (AP) – Israelis began voting 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 predict a close race between those who support Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and those who love “anyone but Bibi,” as he is widely known.
“Vote, vote, vote, vote, vote,” Netanyahu said after casting his ballot in Jerusalem, with his wife Sara by his side. He called the occasion a “festival of democracy.”
“This is the moment of truth for the state of Israel,” his rival Yair Lapid said while voting in Tel Aviv.
One truth: Israelis are tired of repetitions. The vote, as Israel’s world’s leading vaccination campaign, garnered rave reviews for the organization, if only because everyone involved has had plenty of practice, with the potential for even more if the results don’t produce a ruling majority. That answer may not be clear for weeks.
“It would be better if we didn’t have to vote, you know, four times in two years,” Jerusalem resident Bruce Rosen said after casting his vote. “It’s a bit tiring.”
The candidates gave their last push in recent days with a series of television interviews and public appearances in shopping malls and open-air markets. The campaigns were increasingly reaching into people’s personal space with a constant barrage of text messages to go out and vote that made mobile phones vibrate at all hours.
More than ideology, it’s about Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. With analysts predicting a lower turnout than last year’s election, he campaigned throughout Tuesday, at one point using a megaphone to tell people on a beach south of Tel Aviv to go vote, according to images in his Facebook page.
Netanyahu has presented himself as a global statesman uniquely qualified to lead the country through its many diplomatic and security challenges. He has made Israel’s successful coronavirus vaccination campaign the centerpiece of his re-election bid and pointed to last year’s diplomatic agreements with four Arab states.
The reality has more nuances. About 80% of the country’s adults are vaccinated and Israel is reopening, but more than 6,000 have died from COVID-19. Israel came under international criticism for failing to quickly send significant amounts of vaccines to Palestinians to combat the rise of the virus in the West Bank and Gaza.
And one of the four Arab nations, the United Arab Emirates, recently poured cold water on the relationship with Israel because its leaders did not want Netanyahu to lure them into elections. The new administration of President Joe Biden has also given Netanyahu a cold reception.
Opponents accuse Netanyahu of messing with the management of the coronavirus pandemic for most of the past year. They say it failed to enforce the lockdown restrictions on its ultra-Orthodox political allies, which allowed the virus to spread, and point to the still dire state of the economy and its double-digit unemployment rate. They also say Netanyahu is in no condition to rule at a time when he is on trial on multiple corruption charges, a case he dismisses as a witch hunt.
Up to 15% of the electorate is expected to vote outside their home districts, a batch of absentee ballots that is larger than usual to accommodate people with coronavirus or quarantined. The government is sending out special polling stations, which include bringing the ballot boxes to the bedside of patients, so they can safely cast their votes.
Those votes are counted separately in Jerusalem, meaning the final results may not be known for days. Given the tight race, the large number of undecided voters and a number of small parties struggling to cross the 3.25% threshold to enter parliament, it could be difficult to predict the outcome before the final count is complete.
The almost constant campaign comes at a price, the Israeli president said.
“Four elections in two years erode the public’s confidence in the democratic process,” Reuven Rivlin said while voting in Jerusalem, urging Israelis to cast their own once again. “There is no other way.”
Israelis vote for parties, not individual candidates. No single-party candidate list has been able to form a ruling majority in Israel’s 72-year history.
Netanyahu’s Likud party and those led by its rivals will look to smaller allied parties as potential coalition partners. The party that can improvise a majority coalition goes on to form the next government, a process that is expected to take weeks.
Tuesday’s election was sparked by the disintegration of an emergency government formed last May between Netanyahu and his main rival. The alliance was plagued by infighting and the elections were sparked by the government’s failure in December to agree on a budget.
Netanyahu hopes to form a government with his hardline and traditional religious nationalist allies. These include a couple of ultra-Orthodox parties and a small religious party that includes overtly racist and homophobic candidates.
Netanyahu’s rivals have accused him of causing the past two years of paralysis in hopes of forming a more favorable government that grants him immunity or protects him from prosecution.
His rivals include Yair Lapid, Israel’s opposition leader whose Yesh Atid party has emerged as the main centrist alternative to Netanyahu.
Lapid mirrored the raw rhetoric of the race Tuesday when he offered himself an alternative to a “government of darkness and racism.”
Netanyahu also faces challenges from a number of former allies who have formed their own parties after bitter rifts with the prime minister.
Among them is former protégé Gideon Saar, who split from the Likud to form “New Hope.” He says the party is a nationalist alternative free from accusations of corruption and what he says is a cult of personality that keeps the Likud in power.
“Today we have a chance to get out of the stalemate,” Saar said while casting his vote in Tel Aviv.
Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, another former Netanyahu aide, could emerge as the kingmaker. Bennett, a hardline nationalist politician who was previously Netanyahu’s education and defense minister, has not ruled out joining a coalition with the embattled prime minister, allowing him to woo both sides in future coalition talks.
The politics of personality has outgrown the race so much that the Palestinians have hardly been mentioned, after years of frozen peace talks.
Unlike last year’s election, the prime minister does not have a key ally: former President Donald Trump, whose support he tapped in previous elections with massive billboards on highways and skyscrapers showing them together.
By contrast, Netanyahu has barely mentioned Biden. The new US president called the prime minister only after communicating with leaders of several other countries and Israel’s supporters began to complain that the delay smelled of slight. The two men insist that their alliance remains close.
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