Israelis vote as Netanyahu seeks to return to power

Israelis will vote in their fifth election in less than four years on Tuesday, with hawkish ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigning for a return alongside far-right allies.

The latest poll follows the collapse of the so-called ‘for change’ coalition, which brought together eight disparate parties that succeeded in ousting Netanyahu last year after a record run as prime minister, but did not ultimately failed to bring political stability.

Interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid is seeking to hold on to power, with his centrist Yesh Atid party trailing Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud slightly in the polls ahead of a vote that, as always, will precede complex negotiations to form a coalition.

Lapid, a former TV presenter, vowed on Monday to “continue what we started” and predicted: “We will win this election the only way we know how – by working harder than everyone else.”

But in a political system where changing just one of the 120 up for grabs in the Knesset could cement a ruling coalition — or lead to another deadlock and possible new elections — the outcome once again remains uncertain. .

Netanyahu, who is on trial for bribery and breach of trust, addressed party loyalists from a bulletproof campaign bus, seeking to convince them that only he can keep the country safe.

“I ask you to go to all your friends, all your neighbours, all your relatives, and tell them that no one is staying at home,” the supporters of the 73-year-old, known as Bibi, urged during the a recent gathering.

– Tight race –

Whoever is asked to form a government will need the support of several small parties to have a chance of winning the 61 seats needed for a majority.

Far-right leader Itamar Ben-Gvir could play a key role in bringing Netanyahu back as prime minister, as his religious Zionism bloc has gained momentum in recent weeks and could come third in the election.

Ben-Gvir, who has faced dozens of charges of hate speech against Arabs, says he is “here to save the country”.

Tuesday’s vote will take place amid growing violence in Israel’s annexed East Jerusalem and occupied West Bank.

At least 29 Palestinians and three Israelis were killed in the two territories in October, according to an AFP tally.

The Israeli army said it would close checkpoints leading to the West Bank and close the crossing with the blockaded Gaza Strip throughout election day.

While many candidates cited security as a concern, none campaigned on a platform of reviving the moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.

– Divisions and discouragement –

The cost of living has been a hot topic this election as Israelis, who have long endured high prices, feel the pinch even more amid the global economic turmoil linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But in repeated rounds of elections since April 2019, few voters have changed their allegiance significantly.

The pacts agreed and broken by their political leaders, however, changed over time and shaped short-lived governments.

Lapid was the architect of the latest coalition, which for the first time brought an independent Arab party into the fold and included others from right and left.

This unlikely alliance was made possible after Mansour Abbas removed his Raam party from a united slate with other Arab-led parties, paving the way for him to join the coalition.

Recent months have seen further divisions within the Arab bloc, which is running on three separate lists, which is expected to weaken minority representation in parliament.

Such a scenario has led to the discouragement of many Israeli Arabs – who make up around 20% of the population – and has potentially weighed on their participation.

“We have to work harder, first of all, to convince people to vote,” Aida Touma-Suleiman of the Hadash-Taal alliance told AFP.

“It’s one frustration over another.”

Edward N. Arrington