Israelis are voting on Tuesday, in the fifth election since 2019, and hoping to break the political deadlock that has paralysed the country for the past three and a half years.
Although the cost of living is surging, Israeli-Palestinian tensions are boiling over and Iran remains a central threat, the foremost issue in the vote once again is former leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his fitness to serve amid corruption charges. His main rival is the man who helped oust him last year, the centrist caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
“These elections are (a choice) between the future and the past. So go out and vote today for our children’s future, for our country’s future,” Lapid said after voting in the upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood where he lives.
Polls have predicted a similar result: stalemate. But a powerful new player is threatening to shake things up. Itamar Ben-Gvir, a leading far-right politician, has surged in opinion polls recently and will be seeking a harder line against the Palestinians if he helps propel Netanyahu to victory.
After he cast his vote in the West Bank settlement where he lives, Ben-Gvir promised that a vote for his party would bring about a “fully right-wing government” with Netanyahu as prime minister.
With former allies and proteges refusing to sit under him while he is on trial, Netanyahu has been unable to form a viable majority government in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.
“I’m a little worried,” Netanyahu said after casting his ballot. “I hope we end the day with a smile.”
Netanyahu’s opponents, an ideologically diverse constellation of parties, are equally hamstrung in cobbling together the 61 seats needed to rule.
That impasse has mired Israel in an unprecedented political crisis that has eroded Israelis’ faith in their democracy, its institutions and their political leaders.
“People are tired of instability, of the fact that the government is not delivering the goods,” said Yohanan Plesner, a former legislator who now heads the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.
Buoyed by his followers’ almost cult-like adoration, Netanyahu, 73, has rejected calls to step down by his opponents, who say someone on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes cannot govern. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing, but embarrassing details from his ongoing trial repeatedly make front page news.
In Israel’s fragmented politics, no single party has ever won a parliamentary majority, and coalition-building is necessary to govern. Netanyahu’s most likely path to the premiership requires an alliance with extremist ultra-nationalists and religious ultra-Orthodox parties.
These parties would demand key portfolios in a Netanyahu government, and some have promised to enact reforms that could make Netanyahu’s legal woes disappear.
The ultranationalist Religious Zionism party, whose provocative top candidate Ben-Gvir wants to deport Arab legislators and is a disciple of a racist rabbi who was assassinated in 1990, has promised to support legislation that would alter the legal code, weaken the judiciary and could help Netanyahu evade a conviction.
Ben-Gvir, promising a tougher line against Palestinian attackers, this week announced he would seek the Cabinet post overseeing the police force.