Israel Votes for Fourth Time, Deeply Divided by Netanyahu’s Rule


Israelis head to voting stations on Tuesday in an all-too-familiar ritual that could deepen the country’s political impasse.

Polls show neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor any of his rivals securely forming a coalition after the fourth election in two years. The nation is fiercely divided over his leadership, which has been tested by graft charges against him and a coronavirus outbreak curbed but not quelled by the world’s most aggressive vaccination campaign.

With 13 parties in serious contention to enter parliament, Israel’s political system has become more fragmented and personalized, allowing extremists on both right and left to punch above their weight, said Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a research center.

“The likelihood is that even if a coalition is formed after the election, it will be vulnerable and fragile, and its chances of surviving over time are not good,” Stern said in a pre-election statement.

Israel has been engulfed by political turmoil as regional and global turbulence mounts. Tensions with Iran and its proxies flared repeatedly, and while the Israeli economy weathered the coronavirus better than many others, risks are piling up.

Joblessness, including furloughs, is towering at 18%. The national budget hasn’t been updated since March 2019, impeding key policy action like improving outdated infrastructure. And the government is watching warily as U.S. President Joe Biden works to rejoin the Iran nuclear accord and reset relations with the Palestinians that foundered during Donald Trump’s era.

The election was called after Netanyahu’s joint administration with Defense Minister Benny Gantz collapsed in December, seven months into its term. Final polls showed Netanyahu’s Likud gaining steam and leading by a wide margin, buoyed by the vaccination drive and defections from right-wing adversaries.

But neither a pro-Netanyahu bloc nor the opposing camp seems to command a parliamentary majority, raising the specter of a fifth round of balloting. Four parties appeared to be hovering around the threshold to enter parliament. If any of them doesn’t get in, that could change the distribution of seats and by extension, the relative strength of the blocs.

The prime minister, casting his vote at a Jerusalem school, urged Israelis to “put into action their democratic right to vote.”

Preliminary results are due through the night and Wednesday.

For Israel’s longest-serving leader, with a combined 15 years at the helm, there’s more than politics at stake as he stands trial. A sixth term would offer the opportunity to push through legislation granting a sitting premier immunity from prosecution. Netanyahu, who has sought immunity in the past, said over the weekend that he doesn’t support an ally’s efforts to legally shield him, and that the cases against him were collapsing.

The prime minister maintains he’s the victim of a witchhunt by leftists and others who want to hound him out of office with criminal charges because they haven’t managed to oust him at the ballot box.

Gantz provided a formidable challenge in the previous three elections, but he lost most of his following after agreeing to govern with the prime minister, breaking a top campaign pledge. Polls show his Blue and White party, which once held as many as 35 seats, shrinking to as few as four, the minimum for entering parliament.

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