Turnout, fate of small parties crucial as polls open for 6.5 million Israelis
Netanyahu has gained ground at rivals’ expense in campaign’s final stretch as virus vaccines kick in; count could take longer than usual; few COVID patients register to vote
By TOI STAFF
Party leaders in Israel's March 23, 2021 elections. Top row left to right: Itamar Ben Gvir (Otzma Yehudit, part of the Religious Zionism party); Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism); Naftali Bennett (Yamina); Aryeh Deri (Shas); Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism).
Polling stations opened at 7 on Tuesday morning for Israel’s fourth election in two years, as the country seeks a way out of an unprecedented period of political deadlock and dysfunction.
The election cycle, like the previous three, revolves around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The ground has shifted since the last vote — with right-wing rivals defying him for the first time, and the centrist challenge mounted by Blue and White’s Benny Gantz having faded — but Netanyahu has so far managed to keep his footing, with polls showing him gaining ground at the expense of his rivals in recent weeks.
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Tuesday’s vote is the second to take place under the shadow of the pandemic. The previous one, in March 2020, played out with the coronavirus storm still on the horizon and relatively few cases in Israel.
An election campaign billboard for the Likud party that shows a portrait of its leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and opposition party leader Yair Lapid. Netanyahu’s portrait is defaced with Hebrew that reads, “go home,” in Ramat Gan, Israel, Sunday, March 21, 2021. Israelis head to the polls on Tuesday for what will be the fourth parliamentary election in just two years. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
But the outbreak in Israel is now receding amid a world-leading vaccination campaign spearheaded by Netanyahu, who has been in office for 12 years. The historic normalization agreements he reached with Arab states since the last election will also likely play in his favor.
His ongoing corruption trial and splintered government will not, however, as he contends with challengers on both his right and left flanks. Following the last election, his unity government with Blue and White chief Gantz began crumbling almost immediately, and elections were triggered over a budget impasse many blamed on the premier.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigns at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, a day before the elections, on March 22, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Netanyahu’s Likud will almost certainly be the largest party in the Knesset after Israelis cast their votes at some 15,000 polling stations around the country. Ma