Baltedy Oded / AP
JERUSALEM For the fourth time in less than two years, Israelis are voting on Tuesday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to retain his power after a record-breaking 12 years in office.
Accused of alleged bribery and fraud, he has refused to resign, polarizing the country between strong supporters and angry opponents, and causing a political stalemate that has led Israel to hold more elections FREQUENTLY than any other great democracy.
Netanyahu no longer has the gifts of former President Donald Trump policies and campaigning. Instead, a world-leading COVID-19 vaccination and a quick reopening of the economy ahead of this weekend’s Easter holiday has brought Netanyahu a huge admiration that he hopes will lead him to victory.
“We went from slavery to freedom,” said retired employee and Netanyahu voter Herzel Guetta resting in Jerusalem after a long period of blockade, borrowing a phrase from the Passover story about the biblical exodus from Egypt. “He really cared.”
Even Israelis who want to lower it give Bibi, Netanyahu’s popular nickname, the credit for convincing Pfizer to choose Israel to host an early vaccine distribution, vaccinating more Israelis per capita than any other country.
“He emerged as a crowned genius. He opened the economy with concerts. He proved himself with vaccines, one of the highest vaccination rates in the world,” said Shani Segalovich, 20, eating lunch at a market in Jerusalem. “I want change, but I have a feeling Bibi will win.”
Polls predict a close race with Netanyahu who has a slight advantage over his rivals to form a strong right-wing government made up of Jewish religious parties, far-right ultranationalist and anti-LGBTQ factions.
Such a government would favor the strengthening of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which the Biden administration and most countries oppose as an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. It may also seek to limit the power of the judiciary, which Netanyahu has allegedly conspired to oust him through his corruption trial, and may pass laws that help Netanyahu avoid prosecution.
Oren Ben Hakoon / AP
If Netanyahu fails to form a majority of 61 of the 120 lawmakers in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, polls warn of another stalemate, leading to unprecedented elections. This is because the alternative to a Netanyahu-led government is an improper collection of grievances.
They include former allies of Netanyahu right-wing, left-wing, center-left and Arab parties, all opposed to Netanyahu, but have little in common, disagreeing on everything from ideology to who should lead.
Netanyahu has gained momentum in part because he has spread his opposition.
Former Centrist Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz posed the most credible challenge to control of Netanyahu in power in the last three elections, but most of his supporters left Gantz last year when he agreed to join Netanyahu in what he called a pandemic-centered emergency government. But Netanyahu preferred new elections rather than backing a deal to let Gantz take over as prime minister after 18 months.
Israeli Palestinian citizens who make up about 20% of the country voted in record numbers against Netanyahu last year and helped block his path to a right-wing government. But a debate over LGBTQ rights and other disputes within the Arab community destroyed the joint coalition of Arab parties and helped Netanyahu try some Arab voters.
“I believe his legal situation will force him to lean towards the Arabs, and get 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. who is voting for the United Arab Emirates, an Islamic party that may be willing to partner with Netanyahu.
What could raise the scales in Netanyahu’s favor is the fate of two small parties in the anti-Netanyahu camp, the leftist Meretz and the centrist Blue and White, who are voting dangerously and risking not getting enough votes for them. made it to parliament.
“It is enough that one of them is not going … to cross the threshold for Netanyahu to be able to then have a majority government,” said Israeli pollster Camil Fuchs.
Election officials also warn that there may be attempts to delegitimize the voting results. Netanyahu’s son Yair, a staunch ally of his father who has promoted false conspiracy theories online, has questioned the impartiality of an Israeli election commission member and claimed the committee “stole” a recent vote .
Israel does not allow postal ballots or absentee voting, but in this election, ballot boxes will be placed in retirement homes for the elderly so that they are not exposed to crowds at polling stations. Israel has also established free shuttle service to designated polling stations for COVID-19 patients and quarantined Israelis. There are even polls.
These votes will be sent to the headquarters of the election committee in Jerusalem to be counted, which officials expect to slow down the final number. The committee says it expects the count to end only on Friday afternoon, shortly before the government closes for the Jewish Sabbath and Passover feast.
No party is expected to win a majority in the Knesset. Instead, the president of Israel must choose a candidate to negotiate with other parties to form a majority coalition.
Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and blockaded Gaza Strip do not have the right to vote in Israel, but they have noted Netanyahu’s campaign commitments to retroactively legalize the posts of unauthorized Israeli settlements, more than 100 of which which lay the hills of the West Bank, where the Palestinians want independence.
“Although we consider this election an internal matter, all their election campaigns were at the expense of our land and our people, and the parties are competing for more land and more settlements,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said in a statement. “We condemn these furious campaigns against our land, our sanctuaries and our people, and we urge the world to act to stop all these proceedings.”
A printing press in an Israeli West Bank settlement whose workers are mostly non-Palestinian citizens is PRINTING ballot papers for elections.
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