Israelis began voting Tuesday in the country’s fourth parliamentary elections in two years, turning into a heated referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s divisive term.
Opinion polls pointed to a tight fight between the defenders of the president who has ruled the longest in Israel and those who love “anyone but Bibi,” as he is popularly known.
“This is the moment of truth for the state of Israel,” opposition Yair Lapid said while voting in Tel Aviv.
Faced with an electorate tired by successive electoral campaigns and the coronavirus pandemic, the candidates went on an offensive in recent days with a series of television interviews and public appearances in shopping malls and outdoor markets. The campaigns increasingly delved into people’s personal space with a constant stream of text messages calling people to vote that made cell phones ring and vibrate at all hours.
Netanyahu has presented himself as a qualified global statesman to lead the country through its many diplomatic and security challenges. He has made the successful Israeli vaccination campaign the center of his re-election campaign and highlighted last year’s diplomatic agreements with four Arab countries.
The reality has more nuances. Around 80% of the country’s 9.3 million people are vaccinated, and Israel is lifting its restrictions. Still, more than 6,000 people have died from COVID-19. Israel was criticized internationally for failing to quickly deliver a significant amount of vaccines to Palestinians to combat the virus’s spread in the West Bank and Gaza.
One of the four Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates, recently distanced itself from Israel because its leaders did not want Netanyahu to implicate them in the campaign. The new administration of US President Joe Biden has also given Netanyahu a fantastic welcome.
His rivals accuse the president of mismanaging the pandemic for most of last year. They claim that it failed to impose the quarantine restrictions on its ultra-Orthodox political allies, which led to the spread of the virus and point to the economy’s still lame condition and its double-digit unemployment pace. Also, they affirm that Netanyahu is not supportive of governing. At the same time, he is being tried for several accusations of corruption in a case that the president calls political persecution.
Up to 15% of the electorate was expected to vote outside their local districts, which was more significant than the usual number of remote votes to accommodate coronavirus sufferers or quarantined voters. The government would move ballot boxes to patient beds so they could vote safely.
Those votes will be counted separately in Jerusalem so that the final result could take days. Given the tightness of the race, a large number of undecided, and that several small parties are on the verge of 3.25% of the vote to enter parliament, it could be challenging to predict the result until the final count is completed.
Israelis vote for parties and not for specific candidates. No party has managed to rule alone in Israel’s 72-year history.