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With much of country vaccinated, Israeli leaders able to head out to meet voters

Party leaders fan out across country before March 23 vote, with Netanyahu hoping the successful vaccine drive can help propel him to victory

MK Nir Barkat, a lawmaker in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, takes a selfie with supporters during a campaign stop at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda on March 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Nir Barkat, a lawmaker in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, takes a selfie with supporters during a campaign stop at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda on March 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

AFP — Campaigning in Israel neared an end Friday, with incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu seeking the majority that eluded him in three recent votes by highlighting the country’s robust vaccination drive and his “real” right-wing credentials.

Netanyahu, who is seeking to extend his record 12 consecutive years in power, visited a food bank before the start of the Jewish day of rest at sundown.

“This Passover, we’ll all be vaccinated,” Netanyahu said in a video posted on his Facebook page that showed him packing food parcels at the Leket food bank for the upcoming Jewish holiday.

Earlier in the day, Netanyahu held an election rally in the central city of Ra’anana, where he addressed an auditorium of supporters, the latest stop in the 71-year-old’s whirlwind tour of dozens of sites throughout the country since the beginning of the month.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud party rally in the northern city of Safed on March 8, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Such visits would have been unthinkable when Israel was in full lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic just a few weeks ago, but authorities have since fully vaccinated around half of the nine million population, the world’s highest rate per capita.

After a campaign dominated by Zoom events and social media messaging, Netanyahu and his rivals were meeting directly with supporters ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Israel’s fourth in two years.

Netanyahu’s main challenger, the centrist Yair Lapid, mingled with voters in the central city of Hod Hasharon, while the far-right leaders of Religious Zionism, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, toured Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market.

‘Vaccines, vaccines, vaccines’

During a period of unprecedented political deadlock, Netanyahu’s Likud and its religious, right-wing allies have proved unable to forge a stable majority in the 120-seat parliament.

But so too has the anti-Netanyahu camp, which now includes prominent Likud defectors who formed their own New Hope party last year to challenge a premier they accuse of corruption and placing political self-interest above the nation’s.

Netanyahu’s campaign has sought to take credit for Israel’s coronavirus vaccination effort, which is the envy of many nations.

People receive COVID-19 vaccine injections in a mobile Magen David station at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on February 22, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

While hundreds of thousands of Palestinians living under Israeli military rule remain in the grips of the pandemic, unable to access vaccines, the Israeli economy has largely reopened for business.

“He is talking about vaccines all day. It is his agenda. That is what he wants people to talk about,” Gideon Rahat, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told AFP.

“It is vaccines, vaccines, vaccines! You can almost think that he vaccinates the population himself.”

Kingmaker

Despite the inoculations, and his clinching of deals to normalize ties with four Arab states, Netanyahu may again fall short of a majority.

Several final pre-election opinion polls showed Likud and its hawkish, religious allies falling narrowly short of a majority.

Multiple scenarios place former Netanyahu aide and champion of the nationalist religious right, Naftali Bennett, as the kingmaker.

Bennett, who served in previous Netanyahu governments, has not ruled out joining him again, while simultaneously criticizing the premier as he eyes a top role in a prospective anti-Netanyahu coalition.

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett takes a selfie with supporters in the southern city of Sderot on March 17, 2021. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Addressing supporters on Thursday in the southern city of Sderot, Bennett said: “Whoever wants to send home the most failed and corrupt government in the world, and wants to bring the best government Israel ever had, will cast a ballot for Bennett.”

Yamina party leader Bennett, a multi-millionaire and former tech entrepreneur opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state, is not Netanyahu’s only right-wing challenger.

New Hope leader, Gideon Saar, is also threatening to peel away some Likud votes.

Looking to fend off the challenge, Netanyahu on Thursday sought to position himself as the only legitimate face of the Israeli right while addressing voters in southern Kiryat Gan.

“There are parties which claim to be right-wing,” he said. “There is a ‘sort of’ right and there is a real right. We are the real right.”

New Hope party leader Gideon Sa’ar, center, at an election tour at Hatikva market in Tel Aviv on March 17, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s main challenger in the three previous elections, centrist Benny Gantz, was punished by supporters for joining a Netanyahu-led coalition in May and is facing political extinction.

Lapid’s Yesh Atid party is polling second behind Likud with a projected 18 seats, but there is no clear path for him to form a coalition, even with support from Israel’s beleaguered left and the Arab-led Joint List.

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