On the coronavirus pandemic, Netanyahu, like many leaders, struggled to balance public health with economic imperatives, though by making what seems a winning bet on vaccination procurement, Israel’s position looks stronger than most in terms of its emergence from the pandemic.
This time around, the Prime Minister faces a particularly wide array of opponents, and opinion polls suggest as many as thirteen parties could cross the electoral threshold and secure representation in the 120-seat Knesset.
Centrist Yair Lapid, who once served as Netanyahu’s finance minister and was a leading TV news anchor before entering politics with his Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party in 2012, is on track to finish a clear second, according to all polls.
Two other key figures in this election are former defense minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Yamina party, and Gideon Saar, leader of New Hope. Both are right wingers, seen as ideologically in tune with Netanyahu, but with one clear distinction between them. Saar, like Lapid, has ruled out joining the Likud leader in any government after the election; Bennett has been more circumspect about what he would do, making him this election’s potential kingmaker.
Israeli governments are always coalition arrangements, and so smaller parties can have a decisive impact. Netanyahu will be looking for strong performances from the two main religious parties representing the ultra-Orthodox communities — both say they will remain allied with Likud after the election. In addition, the Israeli leader can feel confident he has the support of the far-Right Religious Zionism party. Polls suggest this grouping — which includes followers of extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose own political party was banned from the Knesset in the 1980s for being racist — is on track to cross the electoral threshold and win four or even five seats.
“I never believed Netanyahu, but I was willing to cooperate with him for the good of the country,” Gantz said after the government’s collapse, adding later, “I shook the hand of a serial promise-breaker. I shook his hand, because the State of Israel was at war [with the coronavirus], and I am, above all, a soldier. I was wrong.”
One of the more striking aspects of this election campaign has been Netanyahu’s attempts to win support among Israel’s Arab voters. In previous campaigns, he has been accused of trying to suppress their vote; on election day in 2015, he even made a video claiming Arab voters were “moving to the polling stations in droves” — in order to motivate his Likud base to get out and vote. This time, by contrast, he has produced campaign material featuring voters declaring in Arabic their support for “Abu Yair,” the father of Yair, hailing his coronavirus vaccine achievements. Privately, lawmakers from Arab parties admit the campaign has been effective.
The Joint List, an alliance of three mainly Arab parties committed to ousting Netanyahu, looks set to win in the region of eight seats. The United Arab List, which split from the Joint List in February, will hope to cross the electoral threshold with four seats. Its leader Mansour Abbas has taken a maverick stance in this campaign, hinting that he could offer the Prime Minister some form of support in coalition talks in return for financial commitments that would benefit the country’s 20% Arab minority.
Voting closes at 10 p.m. (4 p.m. ET). TV networks publish projected results based on exit polls almost immediately, but it will likely be several days before final results are known. Given that several parties have been polling close to the electoral threshold, it is quite possible that some of them may fail to secure any seats after all the votes are counted, which in turn could have a major impact on the possibilities that exist for the main parties as they look to build a coalition of at least 61 seats.
And if the election doesn’t yield a viable coalition, Israelis could be trudging back to the polls by year’s end.