Israelis vote again, as political crisis deepens
JERUSALEM (AP) — For the fifth time since 2019, Israelis voted in national elections on Tuesday, hoping to break the political deadlock that has paralyzed the country for three and a half years.
Although the cost of living is rising, Israeli-Palestinian tensions are boiling over and Iran remains a central threat, the main issue in the vote is once again former leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his fitness to serve amid corruption charges. His main rival is the one who ousted him last year, the centrist caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
“These elections are (a choice) between the future and the past. So go vote today for the future of our children, for the future of our country,” Lapid said after voting in the upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood where he lives.
Polls predicted a similar outcome: deadlock. But a powerful new player threatens to shake things up. Itamar Ben-Gvir, a prominent far-right politician, has recently surged in opinion polls and will seek a tougher line against the Palestinians if he helps propel Netanyahu to victory.
After voting in the West Bank settlement where he lives, Ben-Gvir promised that a vote for his party would lead to the formation of an “all right-wing government” with Netanyahu as prime minister.
With former allies and proteges refusing to serve under him during his trial, Netanyahu has been unable to form a viable majority government in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.
“I’m a little worried,” Netanyahu said after casting his vote. “I hope we end the day with a smile.”
Opponents of Netanyahu, a constellation of ideologically diverse parties, are also paralyzed to cobble together the 61 seats needed to govern.
This stalemate has plunged Israel into an unprecedented political crisis that has eroded the confidence of Israelis in their democracy, its institutions and their political leaders.
“People are tired of the instability, of the government not delivering the goods,” said Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker who now heads the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.
Election officials said that in the first three hours of voting on Tuesday, turnout stood at 15.9%, about 1% higher than the morning hours of voting last year.
Buoyed by the almost sectarian adoration of his supporters, Netanyahu, 73, has rejected calls for the resignation of his opponents, who say a person on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes cannot not govern. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing, but embarrassing details of his ongoing trial repeatedly make headlines.
In Israel’s fragmented politics, no party has ever won a parliamentary majority, and the formation of a coalition is necessary to govern. Netanyahu’s likeliest path to the premiership requires an alliance with hardline ultra-nationalists and ultra-Orthodox religious parties.
These parties would demand key portfolios in a Netanyahu government, and some have promised to enact reforms that could make Netanyahu’s legal troubles go away.
The ultranationalist Religious Zionism party, whose provocative candidate Ben-Gvir wants to kick out Arab lawmakers and is a follower of a racist rabbi murdered in 1990, has pledged to support legislation that would change the legal code, weaken the judicial system and could helping Netanyahu escape conviction. Ben-Gvir, promising a tougher line against Palestinian attackers, announced this week that he would run for the ministerial post overseeing the police force.
Critics have sounded the alarm over what they see as a destructive threat to Israeli democracy.
“If Netanyahu triumphs,” columnist Sima Kadmon wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily, “these will be the last days of the State of Israel as we have known it for 75 years.”
Netanyahu’s Likud party tried to assuage concerns, saying any changes to the legal code would not apply to Netanyahu’s case and that extremist elements in his potential coalition would be subdued.
Netanyahu, currently the leader of the opposition, describes himself as the consummate statesman and the only leader capable of leading the country through its myriad challenges. Polls say the race is too close to predict.
Netanyahu was ousted last year after 12 years in power by the diverse coalition forged by Lapid, Netanyahu’s main challenger.
The coalition, made up of nationalists who oppose a Palestinian state, pacifist parties seeking a peace agreement, as well as, for the first time in the country’s history, a small Arab Islamist party, united by their distaste for Netanyahu but collapsed this spring due to infighting.
The centrist Lapid, a former author and broadcaster who became prime minister in a power-sharing deal, presented himself as an honest and scandal-free change from the polarizing Netanyahu.
During his short tenure as interim leader, Lapid hosted President Joe Biden on a successful visit to Israel, led the country in a brief military operation against militants in Gaza, and signed a diplomatic agreement with the Lebanon fixing a maritime boundary between enemy nations.
Still, Lapid’s chances of returning to management are shaky. He relies on voters from Israel’s Palestinian minority, who make up a fifth of the population. Their turnout is expected to reach historic lows, but if they turn up to vote unexpectedly, it could reduce the numbers in the Netanyahu camp.
After the votes have been counted, the parties have almost three months to form a government. If they can’t, Israel will head for another election.
“I hope this time it will be final,” said Avi Shlush, a Tel Aviv voter. “But it won’t be final. We are heading for another election.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.