Israel voters take fourth shot at deciding Netanyahu's fate

·4-min read

Israelis were voting Tuesday in their fourth election in less than two years, with the nation deeply split on whether veteran Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should stay in power.

The day, which saw low voter turnout, was punctuated by a rocket fired from Gaza by Palestinian militants, the first in months.

Netanyahu, 71, is Israel's longest-serving premier but his inability to unite a stable governing majority behind him has mired the country in political gridlock.

He hopes to be rewarded by voters for establishing ties with a series of Arab countries, and for a Covid vaccination campaign that has inoculated half of Israel's roughly nine million people.

Election workers in full protective gear staffed special polling stations for voters in quarantine and those with the coronavirus -- but most citizens wore only face masks thanks to the world-leading inoculation effort.

While Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party appears set to win the most seats in the 120-seat Knesset, the premier will need coalition partners to secure a majority.

That means Israel is looking at three possible outcomes: another coalition under Netanyahu who has been in power for 12 straight years, an ideologically divided government united only by its opposition to him, or a looming fifth election.

A determined and energised Netanyahu toured the country, encouraging supporters to "get out and vote", with Palestinian militants firing a rocket from Gaza at Beersheba a short while after the premier visited the southern city.

The army said "a projectile was fired from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory," with a spokeswoman saying a rocket hit an open field, in the first such attack since January.

There were no immediate reports of damage or injuries.

Turnout, which could prove crucial given the deeply divided electorate, stood at about 52 percent 1600 GMT, the Central Elections Committee said, down from the 56.3 percent recorded at the same time in the last election in March 2020.

Earlier in the day in the central city Holon, a polling booth worker, wearing a blue grown and plastic face shield, said the repeated elections were "a catastrophe".

"We are burning money and nothing changes," retired 65-year-old engineer Efraim Achtarzad told AFP.

- Corruption trial -

Netanyahu is on trial over corruption charges -- allegations he denies, but which have helped fuel a protest movement with weekly rallies outside his Jerusalem residence.

The premier has said he will not block the trial and looks forward to being exonerated, but critics suspect that if he wins a majority, he may seek parliamentary action to delay or end the process.

To form a government, Netanyahu would have to strike deals with small factions that control a handful of seats, possibly including Religious Zionism, a new extremist, far-right alliance.

If Religious Zionism crosses the 3.25 percent electoral threshold, as polls predict, it will send to parliament Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has voiced admiration for the mass-murderer of 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron in 1994, Baruch Goldstein.

Netanyahu's main challenger is former television personality Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, which is expected to finish second behind Likud.

Lapid said, after voting in Tel Aviv, that "there are only two options: a large Yesh Atid or a government of darkness, racism and homophobia".

Lapid has no evident path to power without support from Netanyahu's rivals on the right.

These include Likud defector Gideon Saar, whose New Hope party could win up to 10 seats, and who has ruled out serving under Netanyahu.

Lapid would also likely have to align with an ideological rival, religious nationalist Naftali Bennett, a multi-millionaire former tech entrepreneur and one-time Netanyahu protege who has fallen out with the prime minister while not, however, ruling out a reunion.

Bennett, whose Yamina party is seen as a likely kingmaker, urged Israelis to vote so they can "actually get once and for all a government that cares for the people".

- Fifth vote? -

Tuesday's vote was forced on Israelis after Netanyahu triggered the collapse of a unity government he had formed with former military chief Benny Gantz, his main challenger in three previous, inconclusive elections.

Gantz, punished by supporters for joining Netanyahu, said he only did so to give Israel stability amid the pandemic.

But their agreement called for Netanyahu to hand power to Gantz after 18 months, something observers correctly predicted he would never do.

If Netanyahu can't garner 61 seats this time and his opponents cannot unite, a fifth election is possible.

Political analyst Gideon Rahat said that may suit Netanyahu, whose primary objective is to stay in power -- if necessary as a caretaker premier awaiting yet another round.

Netanyahu "can easily go to a fifth, sixth or seventh election", Rahat said.

Amit Fischer, a 35-year-old PhD student and Lapid supporter, said he expected a fifth election.

"There are too many small parties, too much ego," he told AFP. "They won't agree on anything."