Israelis went to the polls on Tuesday for the fourth time in two years, hoping to end a political deadlock that has left the country without a national budget or stable government in the middle of a pandemic.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is running for re-election despite standing trial on corruption charges, a decision that has divided the country and turned the election into a referendum on Mr. Netanyahu himself.
If re-elected, Mr. Netanyahu has promised to curb the power of the courts, setting the stage for a showdown between the judicial and executive branches of government that critics fear would cause a constitutional crisis. His opponents believe he wants to change the law to give himself immunity in his court case, a charge he denies.
While pre-election polls suggest that Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing party, Likud, will emerge as the largest in the next Parliament, it is unclear whether his wider alliance of conservative, ultra-Orthodox Jewish and ultranationalist parties will win enough seats to form a parliamentary majority.
If no party can assemble a majority, the current impasse will continue and Israel could face a fifth election in a few months.
Mr. Netanyahu’s critics are counting on an ideologically incoherent array of opposition parties winning enough seats to form a majority — and then putting aside their political differences to create a functional coalition.
Even if they win enough seats, it will be tricky for them to unite. Parties opposed to Mr. Netanyahu include right-wingers, leftists and those representing Israel’s Arab minority.
The leading opposition candidate is a centrist former finance minister, Yair Lapid. To topple Mr. Netanyahu, he would need the support of Gideon Saar, a former Likud interior minister who shares many of Mr. Netanyahu’s political beliefs and who broke with the prime minister last year after Mr. Netanyahu refused to step down while on trial.
Mr. Lapid’s fate is also complicated by Naftali Bennett, another right-winger who has not ruled out working with Mr. Netanyahu’s critics but says he won’t back Mr. Lapid for prime minister. And both Mr. Bennett and Mr. Saar could balk at forming a coalition with a pair of Arab parties whose support would be crucial in forcing Mr. Netanyahu from office.
The campaign largely focused on Mr. Netanyahu himself, diverting attention from more existential issues such as Israel’s secular-religious divide, let alone the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mr. Netanyahu centered his campaign on his world-leading vaccine rollout, which has given a majority of Israelis at least one vaccine dose.
But his coronavirus record also makes him vulnerable. Mr. Netanyahu has often been accused of politicizing pandemic policymaking, not least when he soft-pedaled raising the fines given to violators of lockdown restrictions. That was interpreted as a friendly gesture to ultra-Orthodox Israelis, who were responsible for a high rate of lockdown violations. Their political parties are integral to Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to form a coalition after the election.
Critics also accused him of having sabotaged budget negotiations at the height of the pandemic in November. That action — for which he blames his coalition partners — collapsed his coalition government and triggered today’s elections.
In his desire to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power, Yair Lapid, the centrist politician and former media celebrity who has emerged as Israel’s most potent opposition leader, has done what many politicians consider unthinkable.
If the diverse bloc of anti-Netanyahu parties wins enough votes to unseat Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Lapid has pledged that he will not insist on taking up the premiership if doing so would prove an obstacle to ousting his opponent.
The proposal displays a level of humility rarely seen in Israeli politics — or most any political theater. But it is not simply an act of noblesse oblige. Mr. Lapid is well aware of the difficulties he is likely to face in getting some of the other parties opposed to Mr. Netanyahu to back him as leader of an alternative coalition.
Two of Mr. Lapid’s potential coalition partners, Gideon Saar, a conservative former minister who recently quit Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud, and Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yamina party, see themselves as candidates for prime minister, despite the relatively modest size of their parties. Mr. Bennett pledged before the election that he would not sit in a government led by Mr. Lapid, whom he views as too left-wing. Mr. Saar said he would be prepared to take turns with Mr. Lapid in leading the government.
Mr. Netanyahu focused his own campaign as a head-to-head contest against Mr. Lapid, casting the race as one between the right and the left and dismissing him as a lightweight.
Mr. Lapid ran a quiet campaign that focused on calls for preserving liberal democracy and thwarting Mr. Netanyahu’s stated goal of forming a government made up of right-wing and religious parties, relying on ultra-Orthodox rabbis and the far right.
Speaking to party activists before the election, Mr. Lapid described the governing coalition that Mr. Netanyahu wanted to form, and that he wanted to prevent, as “an extremist, homophobic, chauvinistic, racist and anti-democratic government.” He added, “It’s a government where nobody represents working people, the people who pay taxes and believe in the rule of law.”
Mr. Lapid has also called to protect the judiciary from Mr. Netanyahu, who is standing trial on corruption charges and who, together with his right-wing and religious allies, intends to curb the powers of the Supreme Court.
As finance minister in the Netanyahu-led government formed in 2013, Mr. Lapid instituted changes meant to share the national burden more equally between mainstream Israelis and ultra-Orthodox men who choose full-time Torah study over work and army service, and who depend on charity and welfare payouts. Most of his policies were undone by successive governments.
Mr. Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, ran in the last three elections in a three-party centrist alliance called Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz, a former army chief of staff. Mr. Lapid parted with Blue and White after Mr. Gantz reneged on a main election promise and joined forces with Mr. Netanyahu to form an uneasy unity government after last year’s election.
After a highly successful career as a journalist and popular television host, Mr. Lapid was the surprise of the 2013 election when his party surpassed expectations and placed second, turning him into the chief power broker in the formation of the coalition.
His father, Yosef Lapid, a Holocaust survivor and an abrasive, antireligious politician, also headed a centrist party and served as justice minister. His mother, Shulamit Lapid, is a well-known novelist.
An amateur boxer known for his casual chic black clothing, Mr. Lapid rode to power on the back of the social justice protests of 2011 by giving voice to Israel’s struggling middle class.
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he has stuck to the middle ground, presenting safe positions within the Israeli Jewish consensus.
As Israeli voters filed to the polls on Tuesday, there was little of the usual festival-of-democracy talk.
Instead a pall of fatigue, cynicism and déjà vu seemed to hang over an election after three contests failed to bring some semblance of political stability.
“The only one excited about going out to vote today is our dog, who is getting an extra walk this morning,” said Gideon Zehavi, 54, a psychologist from Rehovot in central Israel.
Amid concerns of low voter turnout, the Central Elections Committee reported that 51.5 percent of the electorate had cast ballots by 6 p.m., compared with 56.3 percent by the same time in last year’s election. But the turnout rate was only slightly behind that of the previous two elections in 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a traditional visit to the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, on Monday night and put a handwritten note in a crack between the huge stones. “I pray for an election victory for the sake of the state of Israel and the economy of Israel,” he wrote.
His main opponent, Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the opposition, said after voting on Tuesday, “This is the moment of truth for the state of Israel.”
Elad Shnezik, 24, a foreign-exchange trader from Tzur Hadassah, a suburb of Jerusalem, said he had voted for Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, as he has always done. “There is no other leader here who can replace him at his high level, with his qualities and abilities,” Mr. Shnezik said.
He said he was not bothered that Mr. Netanyahu is standing trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. “No person is completely pure,” he said.
Shai Komarov, 30, a yoga teacher in Jerusalem, said he was voting for the predominantly Arab Joint List. “There needs to be a major change in the agenda,” he said. He had switched between parties on the left “one or two elections ago,” he said. “It’s getting hard to keep track.”
But he added: “Anyone who has been indicted should not be prime minister. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Negina Abrahamov, 45, from Ramle, another city in central Israel, said she did not plan to vote this time. “I struggled with myself over voting the last three times,” she said, “and every government that was formed after the elections failed me and failed the purpose for which it was formed.”
With opinion polls indicating a possible continuation of the gridlock that has led to the recurring elections, Albert Sombrero, 33, another voter from Rehovot, said, “I feel like we will be meeting again six months from now.”
Isabel Kershner, Gabby Sobelman, Irit Pazner Garshowitz and
A third more ballot boxes than usual. Fifty extra mobile voting stations that can be deployed to avoid overcrowding. Separate polling stations in health clinics and drive-in tent compounds for infected or quarantined voters. Ballot boxes placed inside nursing homes.
These are some of the precautions taken by Israel’s Central Elections Committee as the country holds its fourth election in two years, and its first amid the pandemic.
The goal, the committee said, was “to give every citizen the right to vote while taking all possible measures to protect public health.”
Israel does not allow voting by mail, and only diplomats or service members abroad can cast absentee ballots, so the pandemic has complicated the electoral process — and could affect the outcome.
Israelis do not have to declare their vaccination status to go out and vote. But with the majority of Israel’s over-18s already fully vaccinated in a rapid inoculation campaign that has outpaced the rest of the world and with infection rates dropping dramatically, for many in the country the risk of contracting the virus has faded as an issue.
The pandemic has featured strongly in the political campaigning. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken personal credit for procuring millions of vaccine doses and has claimed victory over the virus. His government opened up the economy, including restaurants, cultural events and nightlife, in the days and weeks before the election.
Mr. Netanyahu’s detractors have focused on the more than 6,000 Israeli lives lost to the virus and blame him for putting his political and personal interests ahead of the public’s in his earlier handling of the crisis.
Israel’s Supreme Court ruled this month that daily quotas for incoming flights must be lifted, in part to allow Israeli citizens stranded abroad to come back in time to vote. A ballot box was even placed at the airport. But more Israelis were registered to fly out of the country on Tuesday than to return to vote.
Whether it ends in a victory or loss for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or yet another muddle, analysts believe the election will have few major consequences for Israeli foreign policy or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israelis across the political spectrum share broad agreement about what they see as the threat posed by Iran. They share widespread resistance to an attempt by the Biden administration to return to the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which many saw as ineffective. And efforts to normalize relations with once-hostile Arab states, a process started by Mr. Netanyahu, are likely to continue under any successor.
All potential Israeli administrations would also oppose efforts by the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israeli leaders for alleged war crimes in the occupied territories. And even with a change of government, the prospect of a final status agreement with the Palestinians remains dim. Two of Mr. Netanyahu’s potential successors oppose the creation of a Palestinian state and have expressed support for annexing some or all of the West Bank.
There would be little change “in terms of policy,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political analyst and pollster based in Tel Aviv. “It’s maybe a difference of tone.”
Mr. Netanyahu picked fights with President Barack Obama and sought alliances with right-wing nationalists like Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and President Donald J. Trump.
But Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the opposition who is Mr. Netanyahu’s closest challenger, would see himself in the same light as other moderate world leaders, like President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, said Dr. Scheindlin.
“He sees himself as a centrist, pragmatic, cooperative believer in the international system,” she added. “As long as it doesn’t come for Israel.”
Keen to cultivate a statesmanlike aura, Gideon Saar, one of the prime minister’s main right-wing rivals, has promised to be more constructive in dealing with the United States than Mr. Netanyahu was during the Obama administration.
And while he opposes a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, Mr. Saar would likely disagree with Mr. Netanyahu about “the feasibility of catalyzing a regime change in Tehran,” said Ofer Zalzberg, the director of the Middle East Program at the Herbert C. Kelman Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group.
The final results from Tuesday’s election will likely take several days to tally, and it may be weeks or even months more before coalition negotiations allow for the formation of a new government.
Israel’s Central Elections Committee hopes near-final results will be released by Friday afternoon, when much of the country shuts down to observe the Sabbath.
But legally the committee has until March 31 to submit the complete results to President Reuven Rivlin, and the process may be delayed by the Passover holiday, which begins on Saturday evening.
After the election results become clear, Mr. Rivlin will give a lawmaker four weeks to try to establish a coalition. He usually gives that mandate to the leader of the party that won the highest number of seats, which is likely to be Mr. Netanyahu. But he could grant it to another lawmaker, like Mr. Lapid, if he believes that person has a better chance at assembling a viable coalition.
Under the Israeli system, any party that wins more than 3.25 percent of the vote can enter Parliament. That allows for a wider range of voices in Parliament, but makes it harder to form coalitions and gives smaller parties outsized influence in the formation of government.
At any point, a majority of lawmakers could vote to dissolve Parliament again, forcing yet another election.
If the first nominated lawmaker’s efforts break down, the president can give a second candidate another four weeks to form a government. If that process also stalls, Parliament itself can nominate a third candidate to give it a go. If that person fails, Parliament dissolves and another election is called.
In the meantime, Mr. Netanyahu will remain caretaker prime minister. If somehow no government is formed by November, Defense Minister Benny Gantz might still succeed him. Last April, Mr. Gantz and Mr. Netanyahu agreed to a power-sharing deal that was enshrined into Israeli law. It stipulated that Mr. Gantz would become prime minister in November 2021.
But if Mr. Gantz loses his seat in Parliament before November, it is unclear whether he would be permitted to assume the premiership.
Naftali Bennett, the leader of the boutique right-wing Yamina party and an energetic political mover and shaker, has emerged as the potential kingmaker in the formation of Israel’s next governing coalition.
Mr. Bennett, 48, has had a long and fraught relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since a stint as his chief of staff ended in acrimony more than a decade ago. A sharp critic of some of Mr. Netanyahu’s policies, Mr. Bennett has sat in several Netanyahu-led governments as a minister as well as serving in the opposition.
Throughout this election campaign, Mr. Bennett presented himself as a challenger for the premiership, despite the modest size of his party.
He called for change but said he would not sit in an alternative government led by Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the opposition. Mr. Bennett says his goal is to form an alternative right-wing government. But he has also not ruled out sitting with Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who is standing trial on corruption charges.
Mr. Bennett could help tip the balance for Mr. Netanyahu after two years of political gridlock by handing him the support he needs for a majority of at least 61 in the 120-seat Parliament.
In return Mr. Bennett and his partner in Yamina, Ayelet Shaked, would likely demand senior ministerial posts.
Mr. Bennett could also end up supporting an alternative coalition including Yair Lapid, the centrist leader of the opposition, and Gideon Saar, another right-wing rival and former minister who recently quit Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party. But that would likely involve complicated coalition agreements for a rotating premiership and support from smaller parties with clashing agendas.
Maintaining opacity this weekend, Mr. Bennett wrote on Twitter: “Netanyahu claims that I will go with Gideon and Lapid; Gideon and Lapid claim that I will sit with Netanyahu. The truth is that Yamina will do what is best for Israel: We will prevent them from dragging us to fifth elections.”
He then signed a pledge, live on a right-wing television channel, vowing not to sit in a Lapid-led government. Analysts said the move had severely reduced his leverage and essentially meant that he had thrown in his lot with Mr. Netanyahu.
The final results of the election may not be in for days, and any number of permutations could change the outcome.
Before entering Israeli politics in 2012, Naftali Bennett, the son of American immigrants, made a fortune as a software entrepreneur. He also ran the council representing Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank for two years, though he lives with his family in central Israel.
Mr. Bennett opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, has advocated annexing large swathes of West Bank territory and has pushed for tougher policies in dealing with Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza.
He and his partner in the Yamina party, Ayelet Shaked, have run in past elections via an array of right-wing, pro-settlement parties with a dizzying series of name changes, often in alliance with more radical elements from the religious Zionist camp and under more influence from rabbis. Running without their more extreme partners, as the New Right party, in the April 2019 election, they failed to gain enough votes to enter Parliament.
This time, too, the pair have tried to broaden their appeal to more mainstream Israelis but with more success, gathering support from voters disappointed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Bennett has been pushing a program for economic reform that he calls his “Singapore Plan” and has criticized the present government’s handling of the pandemic.
Mr. Bennett reached the peak of his political career in late 2019, when Mr. Netanyahu appointed him as defense minister to keep his support at a time of political turmoil. He served in the role for about six months.
After the 2013 election, the political centrist leader, Yair Lapid, made an alliance with Mr. Bennett, then the leader of the Jewish Home party, and forced Mr. Netanyahu to accept them both into his ruling coalition. Mr. Netanyahu left Mr. Bennett out of the government that he formed after the September 2020 election.
When an anti-Arab Jewish militant, Meir Kahane, was elected to the Israeli Parliament in the 1980s, politicians from both the right and the left boycotted his speeches in the chamber.
Nearly 40 years later, exit polls project that one of Mr. Kahane’s admirers has been elected to Parliament — not as a pariah, this time, but as part of a far-right bloc allied with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Itamar Ben Gvir is projected to enter Parliament as part of the Religious Zionist bloc, an ultranationalist alliance that Mr. Netanyahu, should he prevail, has promised to include in a future coalition government. The alliance includes Noam, a small party that campaigns against gay rights, and an extremist party headed by Mr. Ben Gvir — Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power. He advocates expelling members of Israel’s Arab minority whom he deems disloyal, supports annexing the occupied West Bank and opposes a Palestinian state. The party’s co-founder, Michael Ben Ari, also represents a group that opposes marriage between Arabs and Jews.
Until recently, Mr. Ben Gvir hung in his home a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, a follower of Mr. Kahane who murdered 29 Palestinian Muslims in a mosque in Hebron in 1994.
In a recent interview with an Israeli news website, Mr. Ben Gvir said he did not personally follow the entire doctrine of Mr. Kahane, whose own party was ultimately banned from the Israeli Parliament and listed as a terrorist group by both Israel and the United States. Unlike Mr. Kahane, Mr. Ben Gvir said he did not believe in creating segregated beaches for Jews and Arabs, and said Otzma Yehudit did not follow a Kahanist ideology.
But Mr. Ben Gvir nevertheless described Mr. Kahane as “a holy man, a righteous man” from whom he takes “many good things.”
In 1995, as a vehement opponent of the peace process, Mr. Ben Gvir stole an ornament from the car of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister who signed the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. “We got to his car,” Mr. Ben Gvir said at the time, “and we’ll get to him, too.” Mr. Rabin was assassinated weeks later. (Mr. Ben Gvir was not involved in his death.)
Once in Parliament, Mr. Ben Gvir has promised to promote draft legislation that would grant Mr. Netanyahu immunity in his corruption trial.
Mr. Netanyahu has rejected the idea and said Mr. Ben Gvir would not himself be selected for a cabinet post, even if his alliance were represented there.
Mr. Ben Gvir nevertheless would enter Parliament off the back of a campaign that dwelled on his support for Mr. Netanyahu.
“Only Ben Gvir can save Bibi,” read a Otzma Yehudit advertisement, referring to Mr. Netanyahu by his nickname.
When Yona Schnitzer, a 32-year-old Israeli content editor, first heard about the latest Israeli election — Israel’s fourth in two years — he felt a surge of anger at how the government had collapsed yet again, and questioned the point of taking part. “My initial reaction was,” Mr. Schnitzer said, “‘I can’t believe this is happening again.’”
When Sobhi al-Khazendar, a 27-year-old Palestinian lawyer, heard about the latest Palestinian election — the first since 2006 — he felt a wave of exhilaration and quickly registered to vote. “All my life,” Mr. Khazendar said, “I have never been represented by someone whom I helped choose.”
In a rare alignment, Israelis and Palestinians have elections within a few months of one another. At least on the surface, their moods could hardly be more different.
The Israeli vote on Tuesday felt to many voters like Groundhog Day, the latest in a series of elections in which no party has been able to win enough support to form a stable majority. It is the embodiment of the profound political paralysis that has been partly caused by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to remain in office while standing trial on corruption charges.
The Palestinian election, scheduled for May 22, will be the first since a violent rift in 2007 between the Palestinian faction that controls the Gaza Strip, the Islamist militant group Hamas, and its rival that exerts limited autonomy over parts of the West Bank, the mainstream Fatah.
“Young Palestinians want change — they want a different life,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political-science professor at Al Azhar University in Gaza. “The Israelis are sick and tired of going to elections four times in two years, but we haven’t had elections in 15 years.”
In the occupied territories, many of those eager to vote in May were too young to vote in the last election, and dream of a new and more competent Palestinian leadership with a clearer idea of how to achieve statehood.
More than 93 percent of Palestinians have registered to vote, a fact that analysts say illustrates an initial enthusiasm for the process.
The political trajectory of Gideon Saar, one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main challengers, illustrates how Israeli politics is being shaped less around ideology than by attitudes to Mr. Netanyahu himself.
For years Mr. Saar was a longtime ally of Mr. Netanyahu’s, serving as his interior minister and sharing many of his right-wing positions.
But Mr. Saar left Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, late last year — not out of profound ideological difference, but in protest at Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to resign after being charged with corruption. Mr. Saar founded his own right-wing party, New Hope, and in January he seemed the candidate most likely to force the prime minister from power.
“Likud has been my political and, to a certain degree, my emotional home for all my life,” Mr. Saar said in December. But he said the party had become “a tool to serve the interests of the prime minister, including those related to his criminal trial.”
New Hope has since stalled in the polls, and Mr. Saar is no longer Mr. Netanyahu’s leading challenger. But if the prime minister’s alliance fails to win a majority, Mr. Saar will be one of three opposition leaders jockeying to head a coalition to replace him.
If anything, Mr. Saar is further to the political right than Mr. Netanyahu. A lawyer by training, he is unequivocally against a two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He supports legalizing unauthorized Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. He has pushed to dismantle a prominent unauthorized Bedouin village in the West Bank — a move that Mr. Netanyahu has put on hold. As a minister, he took a hard-line stance against unauthorized African immigrants.
And although he disapproves of how Mr. Netanyahu has handled his personal legal battle, Mr. Saar also wants to reform the judiciary and dilute the power of the attorney general.
But while he is ideologically far removed from the leftists and centrists who will need to join forces to form a government, his track record as a Likud whip may equip him with the necessary negotiating skills. In December, Mr. Saar was reported to have masterminded a cross-party maneuver in Parliament that helped stop last-minute efforts to delay Tuesday’s election.
Israel Election Live Updates: Exit Polls Expected Soon – The New York Times