Israeli elections: Netanyahu hopes for shot in the arm from vaccine success

Government’s handling of pandemic and economic crisis has dominated campaign

Israelis head to the polls on Tuesday for the fourth time in two years and, once again, the outcome hangs in the balance as a deeply divided nation decides whether or not to grant Binyamin Netanyahu his sixth term as prime minister.

The weekend polls, the last allowed before the vote, showed neither Netanyahu nor the parties opposed to him with a clear path to forming a majority coalition.

The three possible outcomes are: a 61-member right-wing/religious government led by Netanyahu; a government combining right and centre-left parties; or a dreaded fifth election this summer.

Covid-19 and, more specifically, the government’s handling of the pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis, has dominated this election campaign.


When the Knesset failed to pass a budget in December, automatically triggering early elections, the prime minister hoped to turn the health crisis to his advantage.

Unveiling an ambitious vaccination campaign, he set the target of having families and friends sitting safely together around the traditional Seder table for the Jewish festival of Passover at the end of March, just a few days after the election. As the whole world scrambled to obtain Covid-19 vaccines, Israel struck a deal with Pfizer to ensure enough vaccines to inoculate the entire adult population.

The strategy worked and, as Israelis go to the polls, most coronavirus restrictions have already been lifted, with schools, shops, hotels and sporting and cultural events reopened to the public.

Netanyahu's ruling Likud remains the most popular party, with the polls predicting 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset parliament. In second place is the centrist Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid, with a projected 19 seats.


However, the difficulty of either bloc assembling a stable coalition raises the prospect of ongoing political deadlock.

Unlike previous elections, this contest is not between the right and the centre-left: it’s between the pro-Bibi and anti-Bibi camps, and a potential anti-Bibi coalition is likely to include three right-wing parties.

Two right-wing parties, Yisrael Beiteinu, led by former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman, and New Hope, led by Gideon Sa'ar, who broke away from the Likud earlier this year, have pledged not to sit in a Netanyahu government.

Another former defence minister, Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Yamina party, has not ruled out the possibility of joining a Netanyahu government, making him the potential kingmaker when coalition contacts begin after the polls close.

The outcome of Tuesday’s election will be determined by the fate of four smaller parties that are all polling close to the 3.25 per cent minimum threshold required to gain Knesset representation with four seats.

Two of them – the left-wing Meretz and the centrist Blue and White, led by defence minister Benny Gantz – are firmly in the anti-Bibi camp. The extreme-right Religious Zionist Party will only join a government led by Netanyahu. The fourth party is Ra'am, an Arab party which split from the predominantly Arab Joint List and could potentially join either a Netanyahu government or an anti-Bibi coalition.

Seat distribution

Any of the four parties failing to enter the Knesset will impact on the overall seat distribution, and a scenario in which Meretz and Blue and White both fail to cross the line is likely to hand a decisive advantage to the right.

Despite making blatant anti-Arab comments in previous elections, this time round Netanyahu is courting the Arab vote and has paid numerous visits to Arab communities on the campaign trial.

Ra'am party leader Mansour Abbas maintains that striking a deal with the prime minister is the best way to serve the Israeli Arab electorate, and if Ra'am crosses the electoral threshold it could have a decisive say in determining the make-up of the next government.

Two weeks after the election, on April 5th, the witness stage will begin in Netanyahu’s corruption trial. If Tuesday’s election is as close as the polls predict, it is not clear if by then we will know if the defendant in the dock accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, already Israel’s longest-serving leader, is about to begin his sixth term as prime minister.