JERUSALEM (AP) – For the fifth time since 2019, Israelis voted in Tuesday’s national election in hopes of breaking the political deadlock that has paralyzed the country for the past three and a half years.
Though the cost of living is rising, Israeli-Palestinian tensions are simmering, and Iran remains a key threat, the key issue at the vote is once again former leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his suitability to serve amid corruption allegations. His main rival is the man who helped bring him down last year, centrist interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
“These elections are (a choice) between the future and the past. So go out and 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 have predicted a similar outcome: stalemate. But a powerful new player threatens to shake things up. Itamar Ben-Gvir, a leading far-right politician, has risen sharply in opinion polls recently and will seek a harder line against the Palestinians if he helps lead Netanyahu to victory.
After casting his ballot in the West Bank settlement where he lives, Ben-Gvir pledged that a vote for his party would produce a “fully right-wing government” with Netanyahu as prime minister.
With former allies and protégés refusing to sit for him during the trial, Netanyahu has been unable to form a viable majority government in the Knesset or 120-seat parliament.
“I’m a little worried,” Netanyahu said after casting his vote. “I hope we end the day with a smile.”
Netanyahu’s opponents, an ideologically diverse constellation of parties, are equally paralyzed when it comes to cobblering together the 61 seats needed to rule.
This impasse has plunged Israel into an unprecedented political crisis that has eroded Israeli confidence in their democracy, institutions and political leaders.
“People are fed up with the instability, the fact that the government isn’t delivering the goods,” said Yohanan Plesner, a former lawmaker who now heads the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank in Jerusalem.
Election officials said turnout as of Tuesday afternoon was 28.4%, nearly 3% higher than the same time during last year’s poll.
Buoyed by the near-sectarian adoration of his supporters, Netanyahu, 73, has dismissed calls for his opponents to resign, who say anyone on trial for fraud, breach of trust and taking bribes cannot govern. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing, but embarrassing details from his ongoing trial continue to make headlines.
In Israel’s fragmented politics, no single party has ever won a parliamentary majority, and coalition building is necessary to govern. Netanyahu’s most likely route to becoming prime minister requires an alliance with extremist ultra-nationalists and religious ultra-Orthodox parties.
These parties would demand key portfolios in a Netanyahu government, and some have promised to pass reforms that could make Netanyahu’s legal troubles go away.
The ultranationalist Religious Zionism party, whose provocative frontrunner Ben-Gvir wants to deport Arab lawmakers and is a supporter of a racist rabbi who was murdered in 1990, has pledged to back legislation that could change the code, weaken the judiciary and help Netanyahu evade conviction. Ben-Gvir, who has promised a tougher line against Palestinian attackers, announced this week that he would run for the cabinet post overseeing police.
Critics have sounded the alarm because they see a destructive threat to Israel’s democracy.
“If Netanyahu triumphs,” wrote columnist Sima Kadmon in the daily Yediot Ahronot, “these will be the last days of the State of Israel as we have known it for 75 years.”
Netanyahu’s Likud party has tried to allay concerns by saying changes to the code will not apply to Netanyahu’s case and that the extremist elements of his potential coalition will be curbed.
Netanyahu, currently leader of the opposition, presents himself as the consummate statesman and the only leader capable of guiding 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 opposed to Palestinian statehood, peaceful parties seeking a peace deal, and, for the first time in the country’s history, a small Arab Islamist party unanimous in its dislike of Netanyahu but in this spring because of this collapsed melee.
Centrist Lapid, a former author and broadcaster-turned-prime minister under a power-sharing deal, has presented himself as an honest and scandal-free change from the divisive Netanyahu.
In his brief tenure as interim leader, Lapid welcomed President Joe Biden on a successful visit to Israel, led the country in a brief military operation against Gaza militants, and signed a diplomatic accord with Lebanon that established a maritime border between the hostile nations.
Still, Lapid’s chances of a return to the top are shaky. He is banking on voters from Israel’s Palestinian minority, who make up a fifth of the population. Their turnout is predicted to hit historic lows, but if they show up to vote unexpectedly, it could reduce the number of Netanyahu camps.
After counting the votes, the parties have almost three months to form a government. If they cannot, Israel will go to more elections.
“I hope that this time it will be final,” said Avi Shlush, a voter in Tel Aviv. “But it won’t be final. We are heading for another election.”