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Voters return to polls amid forecasts of tight race in Israel election

A man votes for Israel's parliamentary election at a special polling station for people who are in quarantine for coronavirus, in Hadera, Israel, on March 23, 2021. Israel is holding its fourth election in less than two years. Picture by Ariel Schalit, AP
Associated Press Reporter

Israelis have begun voting in the country’s fourth parliamentary election in two years – a highly charged referendum on the divisive rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Public opinion polls forecast a tight race between those who support Israel’s longest-serving premier and those who want “anyone but Bibi”, as he is widely known.

Facing an electorate worn down by a series of campaigns and the coronavirus pandemic, candidates made their final push in recent days with a series of TV interviews and public appearances at shopping centres and outdoor marketplaces.

The campaigns increasingly reached into people’s personal space with a constant barrage of get-out-and-vote texts that made mobile phones buzz at all hours.

Mr Netanyahu has portrayed himself as a global statesman uniquely qualified to lead the country through its many security and diplomatic challenges. He has made Israel’s successful coronavirus vaccination campaign the centrepiece of his re-election bid, and pointed to last year’s diplomatic agreements with four Arab states.

Opponents accuse Mr Netanyahu of bungling the management of the coronavirus pandemic for most of the past year. They say he failed to enforce lockdown restrictions on his ultra-Orthodox political allies, allowing the virus to spread, and point to the still dire state of the economy and its double-digit unemployment rate.

They also say Mr Netanyahu is unfit to rule at a time when he is on trial for multiple corruption charges, a case he dismisses as a witch hunt.

Up to 15% of the electorate is expected to vote outside their home districts, a batch of absentee balloting that is larger than usual to accommodate those with coronavirus or in quarantine. The government is dispatching special polling stations, including vehicles, to provide places for them to vote safely.

Those votes are tallied separately in Jerusalem, meaning final results may not be known for days. Given the tight race, the large number of undecided voters and a number of small parties struggling to cross the 3.25% threshold for entry into parliament, it could be difficult to predict the outcome before the final count is complete.

Israelis vote for parties, not individual candidates. No single party list of candidates has been able to form a governing majority in Israel’s 72-year history.

Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party and those led by his rivals will be looking to smaller, allied parties as potential coalition partners. The party that can cobble together a majority coalition gets to form the next government – a process that is expected to take weeks.

Today’s election was triggered by the disintegration of an emergency government formed last May between Mr Netanyahu and his chief rival to manage the coronavirus pandemic. The alliance was plagued by infighting, and elections were triggered by the government’s failure in December to agree on a budget.

Mr Netanyahu is hoping to form a government with his traditional religious and hard-line nationalist allies.

Mr Netanyahu’s rivals have accused him of causing the past two years of paralysis in hopes of forming a more favourable government that would grant him immunity or protect him from prosecution.

His challengers include Yair Lapid, Israel’s opposition leader whose Yesh Atid party has emerged as the main centrist alternative to Mr Netanyahu.

Analysts expect voter fatigue to contribute to lower turnout, which had been at 71% in the most recent election a year ago.

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