4,000 quarantined Israelis vote in special polling stations

Turnout highest since 2015 as voters defy predictions of apathy, virus fears

71% of Israelis vote, despite analysts’ prediction turnout could be depressed by fatigue for 3rd election in a year

People cast their ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem, during the Knesset Elections, on March 2, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90
People cast their ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem, during the Knesset Elections, on March 2, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90

Smashing worries about voter fatigue and virus fears, authorities said Monday that Israelis streamed to the polls in higher numbers than have been seen in years.

The Central Elections Committee said that 65.5 percent of registered voters cast their ballots by 8 p.m. — the highest figure for the hour since 1999. At the end of voting, the committee put turnout at 71%, with 4,579,931 eligible voters having cast their ballots. That marked the highest turnout since 2015, when 72% voted.

The vote, Israel’s third in under a year, has been stalked by fears of the spreading novel coronavirus. Nonetheless, voters across the country cast ballots for leading parties Likud, Blue and White or one of the smattering of other parties vying for Knesset seats.

Israelis queue up to vote during parliamentary election at a polling station in Jerusalem on March 2, 2020 (JALAA MAREY / AFP)There are 6,453,255 eligible voters in Israel, and ahead of the vote, analysts said they feared that frustration with the political system after seemingly unending deadlock would lower turnout.

The number of those eligible to vote has increased around 1% since the last election (some 60,000 people), said CEC director general Orly Adas.

The total turnout in the September elections was 69.4% and in the April vote, 67.9%.

In addition to the normal polling stations, 16 specially equipped voting booths were opened for the 5,630 voters who were under home quarantine as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus in Israel. By the time those polling stations closed at 6:45 p.m., 4,073 of those people had cast their ballots.

People quarantined for coronavirus arrive to cast their votes in a specially made tent in Tel Aviv, March 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

There were long lines reported at many of those polling stations due to the protocols in place that made it take longer to process each voter while ensuring that sterile conditions were maintained.

After two inconclusive elections last year, opinion polls forecast another stalemate in a vote largely seen as a referendum on prime minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who will go on trial on corruption charges two weeks after Monday’s vote.

He is being challenged by Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party.

Twenty-nine parties are running, but no more than eight are likely to clear the 3.25% electoral threshold needed to enter the Knesset.

Polling in the final days before Monday’s election showed support for Likud grow slightly, with the party possibly surpassing its rival Blue and White, though the surveys indicated it is still several seats short of achieving a 61-seat Knesset majority without the support of Yisrael Beytenu.

The Arab vote is seen to be crucial in this election, with the Joint List polling at a record high 14-15 seats. Most, but not all, of the predominantly Arab party recommended Gantz as prime minister after September’s deadlocked elections. Channel 13 said its survey publicized Friday indicated a likely high 65% turnout among Arab Israeli voters. Their turnout was at some 50% last April and 60% in September.

Joint List leader Ayman Odeh casts his vote during elections in Haifa, Israel, March 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Netanyahu has in previous elections used claims that Arab voters were turning out in high numbers to try to get his supporters to the polls. A trend of falling Arab turnout was reversed in September, however, and the Joint List, led by MK Ayman Odeh, is predicting a record high turnout on Monday, with Arab voters galvanized by a clause in the recently unveiled Trump peace plan that suggests Israel’s borders could be redrawn to make some Arabs towns and villages in northern Israel part of a future Palestinian state in the West Bank. Such a move, which Netanyahu has said he opposes, is bitterly opposed by Israel’s Arab minority, who constitute a little less than a quarter of the population.

Pundits and others have already begun to talk about a fourth vote in several months if the stalemate is not broken.

Two final surveys released Friday showed neither Netanyahu nor Gantz able to easily muster a Knesset majority.

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