ISRAEL ELECTION: Netanyahu hopes to return to power, as polls predict another deadlock

Israelis voting on Tuesday, which is the fifth time in less than four years, has recorded tremendous turnout as Israelis keep returning to the polls primarily because voters remain evenly split on the question of whether former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, is fit to run the country while standing trial on corruption charges.

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After years of deadlock, voter exasperation may hurt turnout, but surging support for the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism bloc and firebrand co-leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has galvanized the campaign.

Israel’s longest-serving premier, Netanyahu is on trial on corruption charges, which he denies, but his rightist Likud party is still expected to finish as the largest in parliament.

However, the final opinion polls from last week showed him still short of the 61 seats needed for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, opening the prospect of weeks of coalition wrangling and possibly new elections.

ISRAEL ELECTION: Netanyahu hopes to return to power, as polls predict another deadlock

“There’s a feeling of despair at all these elections,” said Hagit Cohen, a 46-year-old social worker from Tel Aviv.

She said she was voting for outgoing centrist Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, rather than the center-left parties she normally backed.

Security and surging prices have topped the list of voter concerns in a campaign triggered by defections from the unlikely ruling coalition of right-wing, centrist and Arab parties formed after the last election.

The campaign, which opened weeks after a brief conflict with the militant Islamic Jihad group in Gaza in August, has also unrolled against a backdrop of months of violence in the occupied West Bank, with near-daily raids and clashes.

Netanyahu cast his ballot on the day of Israel’s general election in a polling station in Jerusalem.

However, the conflict has had little direct impact on the campaign, which has been overshadowed by the outsized personality of Netanyahu, whose legal battles have fed the stalemate blocking Israel’s political system. (TNG) reports that Netanyahu was placed under investigation in 2016, on charges related to bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Ever since, the country has been divided between those who think he should now stay away from politics and those who don’t.

Casting his ballot in Jerusalem, Netanyahu, after warning supporters about a potentially high turnout for his opponents, said: “I told you I was a little bit worried but God willing…we will finish the day with a smile.”

As Netanyahu’s legal problems have continued, Ben-Gvir and fellow far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich have eaten into Likud’s traditional hawkish base and the once-marginal Religious Zionism is now set to be the third-largest party in parliament.

ISRAEL ELECTION: Netanyahu hopes to return to power, as polls predict another deadlock
Benjamin Netanyahu

Ben-Gvir – a former member of Kach, a group on Israeli and U.S. terrorist watchlists- has moderated some earlier positions, but the prospect of his joining a coalition government led by Netanyahu risks alarming Washington.

Casting his vote in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, where he lives, Ben-Gvir told reporters: “Here, with one ballot, hopefully, Netanyahu will become prime minister, (and) a right-wing government will be formed”.

Two elections in 2019 ended in a stalemate, leaving Netanyahu in power as a caretaker prime minister but unable to cobble together a formal coalition.

The third election in 2020 resulted in a grand coalition between Mr. Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, a former army chief, but their alliance quickly collapsed before it even set a national budget, leading to a fourth election in March 2021.

That election also ended in deadlock, but Netanyahu was prized from office when a small right-wing party led by Naftali Bennett, who had been one of his allies, broke ranks and formed a coalition with the prime minister’s opponents.

Despite some early successes, including setting Israel’s first budget in more than three years, Bennett controlled only a tiny majority and struggled to govern amid profound ideological differences among coalition members. The government collapsed in June of this year amid disagreements over the rights of Israel’s Arab minority, the relationship between religion and state, and settlement policy in the occupied West Bank.

Bennett ceded power to Yair Lapid, a centrist former broadcaster, and called for another early election — Israel’s fifth since April 2019.

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