Netanyahu fights on for survival as Israel goes to polls yet again

Jerusalem: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was fighting for his political survival on Tuesday (Wednesday AEDT) as the country held its fourth parliamentary election in two years.

The election is widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s divisive rule, and once again, opinion polls were forecasting an extremely tight race. Exit polls were scheduled to be released by Israel’s three major TV stations after the end of voting at 10pm (Tel Aviv-time), but it could be several days before the true outcome of the race is known.

A pedestrian passes an election campaign billboard for Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister and the leader of the Likud party, in Tel Aviv, Israel.Credit:Bloomberg

The three-month campaign was largely devoid of substantive issues and focused heavily on Netanyahu’s personality and whether he should remain in office. In contrast to past elections where he faced off against a clear rival, this time a diverse array of parties is trying to topple him, having little in common beyond their shared animosity toward him.

“Vote, vote, vote, vote, vote,” Netanyahu said after casting his ballot in Jerusalem, his wife, Sara, at his side.

Netanyahu, 71, who even after 12 years in office remains a tireless campaigner, continued throughout the day. At one point, he marched along a Mediterranean beach imploring people over a megaphone to go vote.

“This is the moment of truth for the state of Israel,” said one of his challengers, opposition leader Yair Lapid, as he voted in Tel Aviv.

An election campaign banner for Benjamin Netanyahu adorns an apartment building in Tel Aviv. Credit:Bloomberg

Netanyahu has emphasised Israel’s highly successful coronavirus vaccination campaign. He moved aggressively to secure enough vaccines for Israel’s 9.3 million people, and in three months the country has vaccinated some 80 per cent of its adult population. That has enabled the government to open restaurants, stores and the airport just in time for election day.

He also has tried to portray himself as a global statesman, pointing to the four diplomatic accords he reached with Arab countries last year. Those agreements were brokered by his close ally, then-president Donald Trump.

Netanyahu’s opponents, including a trio of former aides who share his nationalistic ideology but object to what they say is his autocratic leadership style, see things far differently.

They say that Netanyahu bungled many aspects of the pandemic, particularly by allowing his ultra-Orthodox allies to ignore lockdown rules and fuel a high infection rate for much of the year. Over 6000 Israelis have died from COVID-19, and the economy remains in weak shape with double-digit unemployment.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara cast their ballots at a polling station in Jerusalem.Credit:AP

They also point to Netanyahu’s corruption trial, saying someone who is under indictment for serious crimes is not fit to lead the country. Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals that he dismisses as a witch hunt by a hostile media and legal system.

Even Netanyahu’s reputation as a statesman has suffered a bit in recent days.

The United Arab Emirates, the most important of the four Arab nations to establish official diplomatic ties with Israel, last week made clear that it did not want to be used as part of Netanyahu’s re-election bid after he was forced to call off a visit to the country.

The Biden administration also has kept its distance, a contrast to the support he received in past elections from Trump.

In a reminder of the country’s many security challenges, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired a rocket into Israel late Tuesday, setting off air raid sirens in southern Israel. The Israeli military said the rocket landed in an open space.

Opinion polls forecast a tight race, with a possibility of both Netanyahu and his opponents falling short of securing a parliamentary majority yet again. That could plunge the country into an unprecedented fifth consecutive election later this year.

Tuesday’s election was sparked by the disintegration of an emergency government formed last May between Netanyahu and his chief rival at the time. The alliance was plagued by infighting, and elections were forced after they failed to agree on a budget in December.

“It would be better if we didn’t have to vote, you know, four times in two years,” said Jerusalem voter Bruce Rosen. “It’s a little bit tiring.”



While Netanyahu’s Likud was expected to emerge as the largest single party, no party has ever won a 61-seat majority on its own. Both he and his rivals must win the support of smaller allied parties to form a majority coalition.

Recent polls have forecast that several parties were hovering near the electoral threshold. A failure by any one of them to enter the parliament would have a significant impact on the balance between Netanyahu and his opponents.

Another complicating factor was absentee balloting. Up to 15 per cent of the electorate was expected to vote outside their home districts, a larger-than-usual number due to special accommodations for those with COVID-19 or in quarantine. The government set up special polling stations and even brought ballot boxes to hospital bedsides to allow people to vote safely.

Those votes are tallied separately in Jerusalem, meaning final results may not be known for days. Given the tight race, it could be difficult to predict the outcome before the final count is complete.

AP

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