Netanyahu is looking forward to a return in the Israeli elections, driven by the far-right bloc

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis voted for the fifth time in less than four years on Tuesday, with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trying to return in a race likely to reverse the performance of a far-right party that has grown from the sidelines. Set to a potential kingmaker.

After years of stalemate, voter discontent with political parties grew, but growing support for the ultra-nationalist religious-Zionist bloc spurred a crackdown on both supporters and opponents of the group’s co-leader, Itamar Ben Gvir.

Election officials said turnout was 47.5% by 4 p.m., the highest at this point in 23 years. It remains unclear how this early strong voter participation will affect the results.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is on trial on corruption charges, which he denies, but his right-wing party, Likud, is still expected to take first place in parliament.

“It’s him or nothing,” a voter who gave his name as Tomer told Reuters outside a polling station in the coastal city of Bat Yam, where copies of Netanyahu’s new biography were on sale.

However, recent polls conducted last week showed the right still fell short of the 61 seats needed for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, opening up prospects for a protracted coalition debate and fresh elections.

“There is a sense of desperation in all of these elections,” said Hagit Cohen, a 46-year-old social worker from Tel Aviv, who said she was voting for outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

Street security and rising prices topped the list of voters’ fears in a campaign launched by defections from the unlikely ruling coalition of right-wing, centrist and Arab parties formed after the recent elections.

The campaign, which began weeks after a brief conflict with Islamic Jihad in Gaza in August, also took off against the backdrop of escalating violence in the occupied West Bank, with almost daily raids and clashes.

“We need security in this country,” said Meir Banai, 23, a voter for Ben Gvir from Bat Yam.

End the day with a smile

But the conflict has had little direct impact on the campaign, which has been overshadowed by the outsized personality of Netanyahu, whose battles have fueled the stalemate crippling Israel’s political system since he was charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in 2019.

Casting his vote in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said after warning his supporters of the potential for a high turnout of his opponents: “I told you I was a little worried but, God willing … we will end the day with a smile.”

Ben Gvir and his far-right colleague Bezalel Smotrich have eaten up Likud’s traditional hawkish base, and once-fringe religious Zionism is now set to become the third largest party in parliament.

Ben Gvir – a former member of Kach, a group on Israeli and US terror watch lists – has moderated some previous positions, but the prospect of him joining a coalition threatens to worry Washington.

“If Ben Gvir enters, it will be a disaster,” said Amin Kurdi from Jaffa.

After casting his vote in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, Ben Gvir boarded a helicopter from the southern city of Sderot to the Netanya coast, where he said Defense Minister Benny Gantz was campaigning aggressively in central Israel.

“We are now traveling to Netanya to say that it is either a government with Gantz or a full-fledged right-wing government.”

Lapid has campaigned for diplomatic progress with countries including Turkey and Lebanon as well as the strong performance of the Israeli economy, which is recovering from the pandemic.

“This election is between the future and the past,” Lapid told his supporters outside a polling station in Tel Aviv.

Additional reporting by James Mackenzie, Dan Williams, Rami Ayoub, Emily Rose and Henriette Chakkar; Editing by Andrew Heavens, William MacLean, Hugh Lawson and Nick McPhee

Our criteria: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Leave a Comment