Israelis are heading to the ballot box for an unprecedented fifth time in four years on Tuesday, as Israel holds yet another national election aimed at ending the country’s ongoing political deadlock.
For the first time in 13 years, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not running as the incumbent. Bibi, as he is universally known in Israel, is hoping to return to power as the head of a hard-right coalition, while centrist caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid is hoping the mantle of the acting premiership will help keep him in place.
Netanyahu issued a stark warning as he cast his ballot on Tuesday morning.
When asked by CNN about fears he would lead a far-right government if returns to office, Netanyahu responded with an apparent reference to the Ra’am party, which made history last year by becoming the first Arab party ever to join an Israeli government coalition.
“We don’t want a government with the Muslim Brotherhood, who support terrorism, deny the existence of Israel and are pretty hostile to the United States. That is what we are going to bring,” Netanyahu told CNN in English, at his polling station in Jerusalem.
Lapid, who hopes he and his political allies will defy polling predictions and remain in power, cast his ballot in Tel Aviv on Tuesday with a message to voters: “Good morning, vote wisely. Vote for the State of Israel, the future of our children and our future in general.” The name of Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, means “there is a future.”
The country was on track to have its highest voter turnout in an election since 1999. Turnout was 47.5% by mid-afternoon, the Central Election Committee said, more than five points higher than it was at the same time in the last vote.
There had been a strong get-out-the-vote effort ahead of Tuesday, with Netanyahu barnstorming the country in a converted truck turned into a bulletproof travelling stage, and Arab parties urging Arab citizens to vote to keep Netanyahu out.
But if the final opinion polls are on target, it seems unlikely that this round of voting will be any more successful in clearing the logjam than the last four. Those polls project that Netanyahu’s bloc will fall one seat short of a majority in parliament.
Just like in the previous four elections, Netanyahu himself – and the possibility of a government led by him – is one of the defining issues, especially as his corruption trial continues. A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) in August found a quarter of respondents said the identity of the party leader they were voting for was the second most important factor in their vote.
But some top politicians on the center-right, who agree with him ideologically, refuse to work with him for personal or political reasons. So, in order to make a comeback, Netanyahu, leader of the center-right Likud party, is likely going to depend on the support of extreme right-wing parties to form a coalition – and if successful, may be forced to give their leaders ministerial positions.
Israelis are also very concerned about cost of living, after seeing their utility and grocery bills shoot up this year. In the same IDI poll, 44% said their first priority was what a party’s economic plan would do to mitigate the cost of living.
And security, always a major issue in Israeli politics, is on voters’ minds – 2022 has been the worst year in for conflict-related deaths for both Israelis and Palestinians since 2015.
Bibi on a knife edge
A recent compilation of polls put together by Haaretz shows that Netanyahu’s bloc of parties is likely to either come up just shy of – or just reach – the 61 seats needed to form a majority in the government, while the bloc led by Lapid falls short by around four to five seats.
According to pollsters Joshua Hantman and Simon Davies, the last week of polling saw a small bump for Netanyahu’s bloc, showing it passing the 61-seat mark in six polls, and falling short in nine. The final three polls published on Friday by the three major Israeli news channels, all showed his bloc at 60 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
Recognizing the need to eke out just one or two more seats, Netanyahu has been focusing his campaigning in places that are strongholds for Likud. Party officials have previously claimed that hundreds of thousands of likely Netanyahu voters didn’t vote.
Another major factor is the Arab turnout. Citizens who identify as Arab and have national voting rights make up around 17% of the Israeli population, according to IDI; their turnout could make or break Netanyahu’s chances. One of the parties, the United Arab List, has warned if Arab turnout falls below 48%, some of the Arab parties could fail to pass the 3.25% vote threshold needed to gain any seats in parliament.
The voting environment
Along with soaring grocery and utility bills and a nearly impossible housing market, Tuesday’s vote takes place against the backdrop of an increasingly tense security environment.
Earlier this year, a wave of attacks targeting Israelis killed 19 people, including mass attacks targeting civilians in Tel Aviv and other cities in Israel. There has also been a surge in armed assaults on Israeli troops and civilian settlers by Palestinian militants in the occupied West Bank this year, claiming the lives of several more soldiers and Israeli civilians. According to the Israel Defense Forces, there have been at least 180 shooting incidents in Israel and the occupied territories this year, compared to 61 shooting attacks in 2021.
In the days leading up to election day, an Israeli man was killed and several injured in a shooting attack in the West Bank near Hebron. The next day, several soldiers were injured in a car ramming attack near the West Bank city of Jericho. The Palestinian attackers were killed in both cases.
Israeli settler attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank – and sometimes on Israeli soldiers – are also on the rise, according to the human rights group B’Tselem.
Near-daily Israeli security raids in West Bank cities have killed more than 130 Palestinians this year. While the Israeli military says most were militants or Palestinians violently engaging with them – including the newly formed ‘Lion’s Den’ militia – unarmed and uninvolved civilians have been caught up as well.
The death of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh in May while covering an Israeli military raid in the West Bank caught worldwide attention. After several months the Israeli military admitted it was most likely their own soldiers who shot Abu Akleh – saying it was an unintentional killing in the midst of a combat zone.
Palestinian disillusionment with their own leadership’s ability to confront the Israeli occupation has led to a proliferation of these new militias – and a fear among experts that a third Palestinian intifada, or uprising, is on the way.
How does voting and forming a government work?
There are 40 political parties on the ballot, although only around a dozen parties are expected to pass the threshold to sit in the parliament. Immediately after polls close at 10 p.m. local time (4 p.m. ET), the major media networks release exit polls that give the first glimpse of how the vote went – although the official vote tally can vary from exit polls, often by small but crucial amounts.
Only a dozen or so parties are expected to pass the minimum threshold of votes needed to sit in parliament.
Once the vote is officially tallied, Israeli President Isaac Herzog will hand the mandate to form a government to the leader he considers most likely to succeed – even if they’re not the leader of the largest party.
That candidate then has a total of 42 days to try and corral enough parties to reach the magic number of 61 seats of the 120-seat Knesset, the Israeli parliament, to form a majority government. If they fail, the President can transfer the mandate to another candidate. If that person fails within 28 days, then the mandate goes back to the parliament which has 21 days to find a candidate, a last chance before new elections are triggered. Lapid would stay on as caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed.