Police and medical authorities were on alert Monday for attempts to disrupt the elections with fake coronavirus reports as Israelis went to the polls for the third vote in less than a year hoping to break the deadlock that has paralyzed Israel’s political system.
After two inconclusive elections last year, opinion polls forecast another stalemate in a vote largely seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will go on trial on corruption charges just two weeks after Monday’s vote.
Polls opened at 7 a.m and are set to close at 10 p.m. Monday evening.
But this vote is taking place in the shadow of 10 Israelis diagnosed with the coronavirus and concerns some could seek to use fears of the virus to suppress the votes for their opponents.
Police said Sunday they were setting up a special task force to deal with the situation.
“Following preparations in Israel to deal with the corona virus, the Israel police will also during election day assist the Health Ministry, the election commission and other relevant bodies dealing the issue, to prevent any attempt to undermine the elections,” police said.
Police said that a national desk had been established that would monitor the elections and “provide a response to the possibility of spreading false reports aimed at causing panic and disorder.”
“Large forces of uniformed and undercover officers will be stationed in and around the polling stations to identify illegal activities designed to corrupt the elections,” police said.
The director-general of the Health Ministry on Sunday said Israelis should not hesitate to go out and vote in Monday’s national elections, and should not be deterred by the deadly coronavirus.
“The situation is under control. Everyone who was infected with the coronavirus, we know where they were infected and this is important… it’s safe to go vote. Don’t hesitate… go vote,” Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said in a video statement.
Bar Siman-Tov said 16 special polling stations across the country have been set up for the 5,630 people who are under home quarantine after returning from trips abroad and there are special instructions for those individuals.
“For everyone else, I say, go vote, everything is safe and you don’t need to worry,” he said.
The Magen David Adom rescue service also said it would deploy more than 100 people to assist at polling stations for the quarantined.
In a statement, the Health Ministry added that the general public need not take any special precautions when voting, though it urged voters and those staffing polling stations to maintain proper hygiene.
“The [voting] booths in Israel are safe and it is safe to go and vote,” the ministry said.
Also Sunday, Netanyahu’s chief rival in the election, Blue and White party leader MK Benny Gantz, accused the prime minister’s Likud party of spreading fake reports about the coronavirus to suppress turnout on election day among supporters of his centrist alliance.
“It doesn’t bother the Likud propagandists to promote with all [their] strength the message that there’s the coronavirus in Givatayim. Did you ask yourselves why in fact Givatayim? Because it’s a stronghold of Blue and White,” Gantz wrote on Twitter.
“This is exactly what Netanyahu intends to do tomorrow,” the Blue and White leader continued. “He intends to disrupt election day, spread fake news in every area identified with Blue and White.”
Gantz was referring to news reports that parts of a mall in the Tel Aviv suburb were closed due to suspicions that a shopper was infected with the virus. In the previous elections in September, 50.32 percent of votes cast in Givatayim went to Blue and White, while 17.32% went to Likud.
Responding to the accusation, the Likud party issued a statement asserting that “Gantz is talking nonsense.”
“A vaccine for the coronavirus will be found before [Gantz] finds a way to form a government without [Joint List MK] Ahmad Tibi.” Likud wrote on its Twitter account.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu claimed Sunday that his party’s internal polling showed he was a stone’s throw away from a Knesset majority that would allow the formation of a right-wing government.
“Our data from three hours ago shows we are at 59.7 seats,” he told supporters at an election rally outside Tel Aviv, referring to his bloc of right-wing and religious parties. “We are very close to victory.”
He said “this movement [of votes] is a consistent trend of recent days, and we can bring about the formation of secure right-wing government for Israel.”
Polling in the final days before Monday’s election showed support for Likud grow slightly, possibly surpassing its rival Blue and White, though the surveys indicated the party is still several seats short of achieving a 61-seat Knesset majority without the support of Yisrael Beytenu and its leader Avigdor Liberman.
In response to his speech, Attorney Shachar Ben Meir filed a petition against Netanyahu with the Central Elections Committee on Sunday, accusing the prime minister of breaking election laws, which forbid the publication of polling data in the three days before an election.
Monday is the nation’s third election in less than a year, after neither Netanyahu nor Gantz were able to form coalitions in the last two rounds, and talks on a unity government fell through.
The prime minister suffered a setback Sunday evening as the far-right Otzma Yehudit party declared it would not step down — potentially costing the right-wing bloc 1-2 seats.
If, as projected, Otzma Yehudit fails to pass the electoral threshold (3.25 percent of the vote, or four seats), any votes for it would be discounted. It has consistently been polling at around 1%-1.5%.
With less than 12 hours to go before polling stations open on Monday morning, and facing pressure from Netanyahu and other right-wing parties to quit, party chairman Itamar Ben Gvir told a Jerusalem press conference, “We are here to stay.”
Netanyahu is hoping to stretch the bloc past the 61 seats needed for a majority. Polls have shown Netanyahu’s bloc at up to 58 seats compared to 55 for a centrist-left bloc lead by Gantz, leaving Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, predicted to win at least seven seats, holding the balance of power.
The biggest obstacle may be voter fatigue.
“People are fed up. They think ‘we’re doomed to another gridlock, so what’s the point of voting?” said Guy Ben-Porat, chairman of the department of politics and government at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University. “I think this is the decisive factor in turnout, but I can’t tell on which side it will work more.”
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals in which he is accused of accepting lavish gifts from wealthy friends or exchanging favors with powerful media moguls. He has denied all the charges.
With his trial set to start March 17, he is desperate to remain in office. As prime minister, Netanyahu can use his position to rally public support and lash out at what he claims is a vast conspiracy by police, overzealous prosecutors and a hostile media to oust him.
Israeli law allows a prime minister to remain in office even if charged with a crime, while requiring other public officials to resign once indicted.
Twenty-nine parties are running, but no more than eight are likely to break the 3.25% electoral threshold needed to enter the Knesset.