Israelis began voting on Tuesday for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political survival in a fourth election in two years, with the veteran leader hoping his role in a rapid COVID-19 vaccine campaign will win him another term.
Opinion polls show that the race is too close to call.
In a lawsuit against corruption charges that he denies, Netanyahu, 71, is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Since 2009, he has led the politically polarized nation where supporters hail him as “King Bibi” and opponents call him “crime minister”.
Opinion polls showed an upturn for Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party during the last days of the campaign, giving a would-be coalition of conservative and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties about 60 seats in parliament with 120 members.
A possible, but more unlikely alliance between right-wing, centrist and left-wing parties against a Netanyahu-led government also lacked a ruling majority in the legislature, but could also be within the reach of power, the polls showed.
Polling stations opened at 07.00 (05.00 GMT) and close at 22.00 (2000 GMT) when exit polls may indicate voting trends, if not a clear winner. Yair Lapid, a former finance minister who heads the Yesh Atid Center, has emerged as Netanyahu’s main challenger.
No party has ever received enough votes for a parliamentary majority on its own in an Israeli election. Election results can only be a starting point, with a final winner determined in coalition talks in the back room.
Critics have accused Netanyahu of seeking re-election out of self-interest, hoping to get enough support in parliament for possible legislation to lift the judicial process against him.
Netanyahu has denied the accusation or any personal involvement in potential criminal immunity measures. But he has not ruled out the possibility that allies may pursue them.
On the campaign track, Netanyahu has highlighted his role in securing millions of vaccine doses from Pfizer Inc and turning Israel into what he called a “vaccination nation.”
About half of Israelis have been inoculated at a rate that has garnered international praise for Netanyahu and calls on Israel to do more to ensure that Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza receive vaccines.
Israel’s rapid rollout of vaccines enabled the country to resume much of its pre-election economy. To publish a video on Twitter of his visit to a hospital in Jerusalem on Monday, Netanyahu wrote:
“Today we are the first in the world to return to life and smile again.”
Netanyahu’s current government, a power-sharing alliance with centrist defense minister Benny Gantz, collapsed in December, about seven months after it was formed.
Gantz’s Blue and White party is expected to win barely enough votes to enter parliament, after angering many of its supporters by refraining from a promise not to serve under an indicted prime minister.