Israelis vote in most of country for twice-delayed local elections under shadow of war

Elections for cities, towns, regional councils held amid Hamas war, conflict in north; extra absentee ballots mean results only likely Wed.; in some border areas, no vote till Nov.

This handout photo released by the Israel Defense Forces on February 27, 2024, shows soldiers casting their municipal elections ballots at a polling site in the Gaza Strip, amid the war there against Hamas. (Israel Defense Forces)
This handout photo released by the Israel Defense Forces on February 27, 2024, shows soldiers casting their municipal elections ballots at a polling site in the Gaza Strip, amid the war there against Hamas. (Israel Defense Forces)

Polls opened across much of the country on Tuesday as Israelis were finally given a chance to cast votes for municipal and regional representatives in an election twice delayed by war.

No major issues were reported as polling sites began operating at 7 a.m. for over 7 million Israelis who are eligible to vote for their mayors and local councils in 197 towns and cities, as well as representatives for 45 regional councils. Polling sites in most locales will remain open until 10 p.m., though in some communities and military bases they will close earlier.

Not included in the voting are 11 municipalities and regional councils along the northern border and adjacent to Gaza, from where some 180,000 residents have been evacuated due to ongoing fighting with the Hezbollah and Hamas terror groups, respectively. Elections in those areas will be held nine months from now, on November 19.

Punctuating the wartime atmosphere, sirens sounded in several evacuated villages in northern Israel shortly after polls opened at 7 a.m., as Hezbollah fired a barrage of dozens of missiles, apparently aiming for a sensitive military site on Mount Meron.

As of 3 p.m. turnout was at 26 percent, down over six points from the last time local elections were held, according to official figures. It was unclear if enthusiasm for the vote was impacted by the war or large numbers of internally displaced people, or dampened by rainshowers and scattered storms that swept across much of the country in the late morning and early afternoon.

Israel’s first nationwide local elections since 2018 had initially been scheduled for October 31, but were pushed off to January 31 in the wake of Hamas’s devastating attack on southern Israel on October 7. They were delayed a second time due to the number of reservists still fighting.

Many soldiers still needed to cast absentee ballots from army bases, including special ballot boxes set up inside Gaza for troops operating inside the Strip.

Another 400,000 displaced residents who have yet to return home will be able to vote from wherever they are residing.

Israel generally attempts to minimize the number of absentee ballots, which take longer to tally than normal votes. In 2018, only 95,000 so-called double-envelope ballots were cast.

Beit Shemesh Mayor and mayoral candidate Aliza Bloch casts her ballot at a voting station on the morning of the municipal elections, in Beit Shemesh, February 27, 2024. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces said it will operate 570 polling sites throughout the day, a third of which opened as early as February 20 for troops serving in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and along the Lebanese border.

Due to the larger-than-usual number of absentee ballots, election officials do not expect final results until Wednesday at the earliest.

There are 24,910 candidates running for election on 4,500 party slates, including 801 candidates for mayor, of whom only 83 are women. Voters in many places will cast two ballots — for the head of the council, and for a council slate.

Election campaign posters of candidates for the Jerusalem municipal elections on buses, in Jerusalem, February 21, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Security forces will be conducting evaluations every two hours throughout the day to ensure voter safety. A police statement on Tuesday morning said that 19,000 police officers, supported by security guards and volunteers, will be patrolling polling stations, highways and crowded public areas all over the country throughout the day.

Interior Ministry Director General Ronen Peretz said at a pre-election briefing earlier this month that should Hamas or Hezbollah attacks complicate voting, the ministry will issue instructions to citizens as to how they can vote, and could even call a halt to voting and postpone it to a later date if necessary.

No voting is taking place in the towns of Kiryat Shmona, Shlomi and the regional councils of Upper Galilee, Mevo’ot Hermon, Marom Galil and Maaleh Yosef in northern Israel, along with Sderot and the Eshkol, Sha’ar Hanegev, Sdot Negev and Hof Ashkelon regional councils in the south. Those areas are scheduled to hold elections on November 19.

Campaign posters at a voting station in Tel Aviv on February 27, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Until Hamas’s October 7 attack, in which terrorists murdered some 1,200 people and kidnapped 253, the lion’s share of political attention had been snagged by the government’s radical judicial overhaul plan.

However, October 7 and the ongoing war have changed just about everything, and now the main issue for Israelis, including those who don’t live near a border, is security in all its aspects, including expectations from the military and the political echelons.

Analysts expect the vote to serve as a key bellwether of how the public feels about its national political leadership’s performance before and after October 7.

Among the most closely watched races is in Tel Aviv, where longtime mayor Ron Huldai is facing upstart challenger Orna Barbivai, a former IDF manpower head and economy minister.

An Illustration of ballots ahead of the Jerusalem municipal elections, at a warehouse in Jerusalem on February 22, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In Jerusalem, the country’s largest city, Mayor Moshe Lion is expected to cruise to another five-year term with no real challenger, though there are fierce battles over the makeup of the city council.

In Haifa, polls have shown Mayor Einat Kalisch Rotem losing to former mayor Yonah Yahav.

Voter turnout rates in municipal elections usually hover around 59% in Jewish majority areas, while Arab voters generally turn out in large numbers, with local elections taking on increased importance due to the refusal of Arab political parties to take part in most Knesset coalition-building efforts.

In Israel, municipalities manage educational and health institutions, the local economy, transportation, infrastructure, construction and culture in their cities. However, political power is highly centralized in the national government, meaning that local authorities’ decisions are subordinate to heavy governmental regulation.

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