JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party held a lead in Israel’s fourth election in two years, exit polls projected Tuesday night, giving him a chance of forming a coalition to stay in power for a sixth term.
Three broadcasters’ exit polls projected that Mr. Netanyahu’s party, Likud, won from 31 to 33 seats, while his wider right-wing bloc won 53 to 54 seats — short of the 61 seats he needs to form a majority coalition in the 120-seat Parliament.
Mr. Netanyahu’s most obvious path to power now depends on Naftali Bennett, a rival right-winger whose party won seven to eight seats, and who could be a kingmaker.
With Mr. Bennett’s support, Mr. Netanyahu could assemble one of the most right-wing governments in Israeli history, created from ultra-Orthodox parties, ultranationalists, a group that campaigns against gay rights and another whose leader advocates expelling Arab citizens of Israel deemed disloyal to the state.
Final results are not expected until the end of the week, and could easily change the outcome.
Mr. Netanyahu campaigned on his record of handling the coronavirus pandemic, including a vaccine rollout that is the envy of the world, a credential that appears to have benefited him. Seeking re-election even as he was on trial on corruption charges, an unprecedented situation, did not prove fatal to his chances.
If he does return to power, Mr. Netanyahu has promised to enact sweeping legal reforms that would limit the power of the judiciary, and which his opponents fear would allow him to circumvent his corruption trial. Mr. Netanyahu’s colleagues have prevaricated in recent days about whether he would use his office to avoid prosecution, with one minister on Saturday refusing to rule it out.
Mr. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and that he would try to change the law to derail the trial.
“Israelis are more divided than ever, but it seems that Netanyahu may have convinced enough of them that he’s the most capable of leading the country in facing the challenges ahead,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Initiative, a Jerusalem-based research group.
“His likely coalition will include partners who are expected to back Netanyahu in efforts he makes to impede the independence of the judicial system,” Mr. Plesner said.
The election caps two years of political uncertainty and polarization in which Israel has reeled from election to election to election, failing each time to return a stable government. The impasse is partly rooted in the nature of the Israeli election system, which allocates parliamentary seats according to each party’s share of the vote, making it easy for smaller parties to enter Parliament, and hard for larger parties to form majority governments.
But the stasis is also the result of Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to resign despite standing trial over accusations of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. That decision has split the right-wing bloc that has kept Mr. Netanyahu in power for the past 12 years, and divided voters and parties less by political ideology than by their attitude to Mr. Netanyahu himself.
Since neither Mr. Netanyahu nor his opponents could win a majority in the three previous elections, in 2019 and 2020, Mr. Netanyahu remained in power, first as a caretaker prime minister, and then at the helm of a shaky unity government with some of his fiercest critics.
But Tuesday’s results could finally return him to a position of strength, at the helm of an ideologically coherent right-wing coalition.
Any new government will immediately face substantive challenges, including an economy bruised by the pandemic, rising violent crime in Arab communities and potential threats from Iran. Diplomatically, Israel is trying to block the resurrection of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which the United States government generally favors and which Israel considers inadequate.
And Israel will urgently need to adopt a new national budget for 2021, since the previous government failed to, a failure that led to its collapse.
All eyes now fall on Mr. Bennett, once a chief of staff to Mr. Netanyahu. A former software entrepreneur and a former commando in an elite unit of the Israeli Army, Mr. Bennett formed his own right-wing party in 2011 and has since been a minister in several previous Netanyahu-led coalition governments. He opposes the creation of a Palestinian state and supports annexing much of the occupied West Bank.
Throughout the campaign, Mr. Bennett refused to clarify whether he would help back a coalition led by Mr. Netanyahu, but he has refused to serve under the second-placed candidate, Yair Lapid, and analysts believe he could be persuaded to help Mr. Netanyahu return to office.
Exit polls suggested that Mr. Netanyahu had beaten off challenges from Mr. Lapid, the centrist leader of the opposition and former finance minister, whose party won 16 to 18 seats, according to exit polls, and Gideon Saar, a former Likud interior minister who quit the party in protest over Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to step down. Mr. Saar’s new right-wing party won five to six seats, exit polls said, while the entire anti-Netanyahu bloc won 59 seats, two short of a majority — but with no route to power without Mr. Bennett.
If Mr. Netanyahu does retain office, he is expected to force a showdown with the judiciary. For years, the Israeli right has framed the Supreme Court as an elitist, activist institution that undercuts the will of the electorate. Its defenders say it protects democratic norms and does its best to stay out of the political fray.
In December, Mr. Netanyahu announced that he intended to curb the court’s influence, calling for “updated arrangements regarding the limits of the judiciary’s authority,” and promising that his party would enact them as soon as it was able. Without the constraints of his centrist former coalition partners, Mr. Netanyahu can put that plan into action.
The election was conducted against a backdrop of profound political gridlock, with the current cabinet so dysfunctional that it could not agree on a state budget for two consecutive years, nor the appointment of key state officials, including the state attorney and the senior officials at the justice and finance ministries.
The vote followed a campaign that centered on the suitability of Mr. Netanyahu himself, rather than on more existential or ideological questions like the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or how to bridge the divide between secular and religious Israelis.
Mr. Netanyahu presented himself as the only candidate able to deter what many Israelis see as the threats posed by Iran. He also sought to distinguish himself as a statesman who had cemented diplomatic relations with four Arab states and brought a world-leading vaccination program to Israel, helping the country to emerge recently into something approaching normal life.
It was a message that resonated with many voters.
“Bibi is the only leader in this country in my eyes,” said Elad Shnezik, a 24-year-old foreign-exchange trader who voted for Likud in Tzur Hadassah, a suburb west of Jerusalem. “I have never seen anything bad in his actions. Everything he does, he does for the people.”
Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents framed him as a threat to the rule of law, and a liability unable to govern effectively because of the distraction of his criminal trial. His attempts to position himself as a diplomatic trailblazer were dampened in the final days of the campaign, after a planned photo-opportunity in Abu Dhabi with the leadership of the United Arab Emirates fell through, amid Emirati frustration about being used as a prop in Mr. Netanyahu’s re-election campaign.
And Mr. Netanyahu’s pandemic leadership brought him as much criticism as praise. Though he presided over a successful vaccine rollout, he was accused of playing politics with other aspects of the pandemic response. In January, he resisted giving significantly larger fines to people who broke antivirus measures, a policy that would have disproportionately affected ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Ultra-Orthodox parties form about a quarter of Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing alliance, and he needs their support to form a coalition.
Mr. Netanyahu searched for every last vote, even from ideologically incoherent sections of society. Despite previously scorning and ignoring Israel’s Arab minority, which forms about 20 percent of the population, Mr. Netanyahu pushed hard in this electoral cycle for their support, presenting himself as the only person who could end the endemic violence and inequality that affects many Arab communities.
But simultaneously, he agreed to an electoral pact with a far-right alliance, whose leaders include Itamar Ben Gvir, a hard-line nationalist who until recently hung in his living room a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, an extremist who murdered 29 Palestinians in a mosque in the West Bank in 1994.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
A rocket was fired at Israel’s Beer Sheva area from the Gaza Strip on Tuesday while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was campaigning in the stronghold of his right-wing Likud party.
The rocket, launched hours before Israeli polls had closed, landed in an “open area” away from residential neighborhoods, the Israeli military said, and did not activate warning sirens.
Mr. Netanyahu, who crisscrossed Israel most of Tuesday in an effort to bring out voters for Likud, was exiting Beer Sheva when the rocket was fired, a party spokesman said.
No group in Gaza claimed responsibility for the rocket. Since the last significant round of hostilities between Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, and Israel in August 2020, few rockets have been fired from the blockaded enclave into Israeli territory.
In December 2019, a similar episode took place when a rocket from Gaza prompted Mr. Netanyahu to take cover at a Likud campaign rally in the coastal city of Ashkelon.
Naftali Bennett, the chairman of the religious nationalist Yemina party and one of Mr. Netanyahu’s main challengers, used the rocket attack to accuse the prime minister of being weak against Hamas.
“I wish Netanyahu would fight Hamas the way he fought me,” Mr. Bennett said in a Twitter posting.
Over the past couple of years, Mr. Netanyahu and Hamas have agreed to a series of understandings in which Hamas has taken action to halt attacks against Israel in exchange for a lightening of restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities on movement of people and goods entering and exiting Gaza through Israeli checkpoints.
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.
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.