Israel votes

Turnout, fate of small parties crucial as polls open for 6.5 million Israelis

Netanyahu has gained ground at rivals’ expense in campaign’s final stretch as virus vaccines kick in; count could take longer than usual; few COVID patients register to vote

Party leaders in Israel's March 23, 2021 elections. Top row left to right: Itamar Ben Gvir (Otzma Yehudit, part of the Religious Zionism party); Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism); Naftali Bennett (Yamina); Aryeh Deri (Shas); Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism). Middle row left to right: Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu); Gideon Sa'ar (New Hope); Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud); Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid); Merav Michaeli (Labor). Bottom row left to right: Benny Gantz (Blue and White); Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz); Ayman Odeh (Joint List); Mansour Abbas (Ra'am); Yaron Zelekha (New Economy party). (All photos: Flash90)
Party leaders in Israel's March 23, 2021 elections. Top row left to right: Itamar Ben Gvir (Otzma Yehudit, part of the Religious Zionism party); Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism); Naftali Bennett (Yamina); Aryeh Deri (Shas); Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism). Middle row left to right: Avigdor Liberman (Yisrael Beytenu); Gideon Sa'ar (New Hope); Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud); Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid); Merav Michaeli (Labor). Bottom row left to right: Benny Gantz (Blue and White); Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz); Ayman Odeh (Joint List); Mansour Abbas (Ra'am); Yaron Zelekha (New Economy party). (All photos: Flash90)

Polling stations opened at 7 on Tuesday morning for Israel’s fourth election in two years, as the country seeks a way out of an unprecedented period of political deadlock and dysfunction.

The election cycle, like the previous three, revolves around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The ground has shifted since the last vote — with right-wing rivals defying him for the first time, and the centrist challenge mounted by Blue and White’s Benny Gantz having faded — but Netanyahu has so far managed to keep his footing, with polls showing him gaining ground at the expense of his rivals in recent weeks.

Tuesday’s vote is the second to take place under the shadow of the pandemic. The previous one, in March 2020, played out with the coronavirus storm still on the horizon and relatively few cases in Israel.

Since then, the virus has swamped the country, killing over 6,000 people and crashing the economy.

An election campaign billboard for the Likud party that shows a portrait of its leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and opposition party leader Yair Lapid. Netanyahu’s portrait is defaced with Hebrew that reads, “go home,” in Ramat Gan, Israel, Sunday, March 21, 2021. Israelis head to the polls on Tuesday for what will be the fourth parliamentary election in just two years. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

But the outbreak in Israel is now receding amid a world-leading vaccination campaign spearheaded by Netanyahu, who has been in office for 12 years. The historic normalization agreements he reached with Arab states since the last election will also likely play in his favor.

His ongoing corruption trial and splintered government will not, however, as he contends with challengers on both his right and left flanks. Following the last election, his unity government with Blue and White chief Gantz began crumbling almost immediately, and elections were triggered over a budget impasse many blamed on the premier.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigns at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, a day before the elections, on March 22, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s Likud will almost certainly be the largest party in the Knesset after Israelis cast their votes at some 15,000 polling stations around the country. Many polls predict ongoing political deadlock; a few in the final days of the campaign have forecast a slim pro-Netanyahu coalition after the vote.

Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid opposition party, campaigns in a mall in Haifa a day before national elections, Monday, March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The country has taken precautions to accommodate its 6,578,084 eligible voters during the pandemic, with logistics turning the election into the most expensive in Israel’s history. A maximum of only 650 voters are allowed at each polling station, and special measures have been taken to allow COVID-19 patients to vote.

Out of some 15,000 virus carriers, only about 1,000 have registered for the special shuttles that will take them to designated polling stations, the Central Elections Committee said on Monday. The patients can only vote in those stations, which are designed to prevent infections, and they can only arrive using the state-run shuttles.

Polling arrangements have also been put in place for Israelis flying in to Ben Gurion Airport Tuesday.

The election comes amid tensions over the voting process and accusations of incitement from Netanyahu’s opponents.

The head of the Elections Committee, Orly Adas, said Monday that vote counting will likely take several days — longer than usual — due to coronavirus precautions and the upcoming Passover holiday. She warned that the delay could be “fertile ground” for growing efforts to delegitimize the results.

Central Elections Committee head Orly Adas shows a mock quarantined ballot, during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 26, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The main problem is the increase in numbers of the so-called double envelope ballots, which are not counted at the voting sites but are brought to the Central Elections Committee main headquarters in the Knesset for counting after the regular ballots. In normal years these include the votes of soldiers, medical staff and patients in hospitals, prisoners and disabled people, as well as diplomats abroad who vote earlier than the rest of the population.

However, this year they also include those of people infected with the coronavirus and people in quarantine and in nursing homes. The number of double ballots is expected to increase from some 330,000 in the previous elections to between 500,000 and 600,000 this time, or the equivalent of 15 seats in the Knesset. With several parties currently hovering around the 3.25% electoral threshold, this could lead to radical shifts in the eventual composition of the Knesset.

Channel 13 reported Monday that the Knesset Guard and security agencies were preparing for a scenario in which masses of people try to storm the Knesset building during or after the election, in what would mirror the scenes seen in January at the US Capitol after Donald Trump lost the election. There have been no publicized warnings of any concrete threats, however.

Illustrative: Members of a Knesset security team take part in a defense drill against terror attacks, at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 26, 2017. (Maor Kinsbursky/ Flash90/File)

Turnout is expected to be a key factor in the final results.

In the previous three votes, turnout climbed slightly, despite predictions of voter fatigue, to 71.5% last March. Analysts have predicted a lower turnout on Tuesday.

The voting rate in particular sectors will likely be crucial. Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies tend to see a very high rate of turnout, while Arab voters are expected to be less inclined to vote after the partial breakup of the Arab-majority Joint List alliance, which achieved its best-ever showing last year.

A number of small parties have polled dangerously close to the electoral threshold and may not win Knesset representation, which could swing the race in either direction.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, waves to supporters as he tours the Mahane Yehuda market while campaigning a day before national elections, in Jerusalem, March 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Oren Ben Hakoon)

Related: Here we go again: ToI’s guide to the 37 parties still seeking your vote

The anti-Netanyahu parties Blue and White and Meretz are particularly close to the 3.25% cutoff, which bodes well for the premier. The right-wing Religious Zionism appears to be in slightly safer territory after climbing in polls in recent weeks. The Islamist Ra’am faction, which has not committed to either the pro- or anti-Netanyahu blocs, has also been hovering near the threshold.

Netanyahu gained steam in recent polls as the vaccination campaign beat back the virus.

His Likud party improved its standing at the expense of his right-wing rivals, Naftali Bennett of Yamina and Gideon Sa’ar of New Hope. In early January, with around 8,000 daily new infections, Channel 12 polled Likud at 27 seats, Sa’ar at 18 and Bennett at 14. In mid-February, with the vaccination drive in full swing and daily cases at around 6,000, Likud climbed to 29, while Sa’ar slid to 17 and Bennett to 10.

Yamina party leader MK Naftali Bennett attends a Channel 12 news conference in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the final polls released last week, with daily new infections below 4,000 and falling fast, Likud polled at 32 seats and Sa’ar and Bennett at just nine each.

Bennett will likely be left as the kingmaker following the election as the largest party that has not committed to either camp. Some polls have shown a prospective Netanyahu coalition winning a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset, if Bennett joins.

On Sunday, following ongoing pressure from Netanyahu, Bennett signed a pledge vowing not to join a governing coalition headed by opposition leader Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, which is predicted to be the second largest after Likud.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid during an election campaign tour in Hod Hasharon, March 19, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

His participation in a Netanyahu-led coalition would undoubtedly come at a steep cost to the premier.

Sa’ar on Monday refused to rule out joining a government led by Lapid, keeping the door open to a coalition to replace Netanyahu that includes right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties. Sa’ar has said repeatedly that he will not join a Netanyahu-led coalition, unlike Bennett.

Head of the New Hope party, Gideon Sa’ar, greets his supporters during the election campaign in Haifa, on March 16, 2021, ahead of the March 23 general elections. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Sa’ar said he was not “limiting his options” when asked about a power-sharing deal with either Lapid or Bennett.

The election was called after the power-sharing government of Likud and Blue and White failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline.

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