With polls too close to call as Israel holds its fifth election in four years on Tuesday, even minute shifts in voter turnout could make or break the longtime prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comeback attempt, for which he has allied with rightwing extremists.
Israeli politicians were busy making their final campaign pitches on Monday, after Friday’s final pre-election polls suggested that neither Netanyahu’s rightwing religious bloc, nor the opposing centre-left bloc, would win enough seats to form a government.
Surveys by Israel’s public broadcaster Kan, as well as Channels 12 and 13, put the Netanyahu bloc, which includes far-right extremists and two ultra-Orthodox parties, at 60 seats, one short of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. The anti-Netanyahu camp, led by the incumbent prime minister, Yair Lapid, was predicted to win 56 seats. Another four should go to a pro-Arab rights alliance that may or may not lend its support to the centre-left bloc.
If the polls are right, Israel’s era of crippling political deadlock will continue, with a sixth election possible in the spring. But if the rightwing bloc keeps slowly gaining, as it has done for the past few weeks, and turnout in the disillusioned 20% of the population with Palestinian heritage is low, Netanyahu may be able to scrape by with a 61st seat.
If that happens, the most extremist government in Israeli history will be sworn into office. Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners, the Religious Zionists, led by Bezalel Smotrich and the popular Itamar Ben-Gvir, have called for the dismantling of the independence of the judiciary, which could help the former prime minister beat the charges in his corruption trial.
Ben-Gvir, who is likely to become a senior cabinet minister, has also called for the expulsion of “disloyal” citizens, and establishing a ministry for encouraging “enemy” Arabs with Israeli passports to emigrate.
“Netanyahu worked actively to bring the far-right and Itamar Ben-Gvir into the mainstream, although I’m not sure he counted on the apprentice overtaking the master,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a political strategist and pollster who worked as a consultant for the Israeli Labor party earlier this year.
“The other parties weren’t complacent about the threat [the Religious Zionists] pose, but I think there was a general understanding that voters are worn out, and they couldn’t waste resources or exhaust people’s attention too early in the campaigns.
“The overriding messages of the parties is whether they will or won’t work with Netanyahu, and there’s now a significant ‘for or against Ben-Gvir’ axis too.”
Netanyahu was finally ousted from a scandal-plagued 12-year-long premiership last summer, after a coalition of eight parties, including, for the first time, an independent Arab list, banded together to remove him. The “government of change”, however, had little else in common, and collapsed a year later.
Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid, with smaller leftwing parties, has been urging supporters to help block the “extremist agenda” of Netanyahu’s new allies.
“The Religious Zionist party… is set to destroy Israeli democracy, wreak havoc in the judicial system, endanger our soldiers and fight against gender equality and the LGBT community,” Yesh Atid said.
Ahmad Tibi, leader of the Arab nationalist party Ta’al, even made a plea to leftwing Jewish Israelis to vote for his slate on Sunday, saying in Hebrew: “Without us, the right will form a majority government … To stop them, we need you.”
Final polls put turnout in the Arab community at 50% – not enough to guarantee the Arab Joint List more than the minimum four seats needed to enter the Knesset. The rightwing camp is also worried about turnout: if ultra-Orthodox voters don’t leave home on Tuesday, Netanyahu may lose a small but crucial slice of his support.
“Despite the fear of fascism getting stronger, Netanyahu’s bloc has, after four elections, still not managed to build a coalition. And it looks like that is the case with this current fifth election,” said Naama Lazimi, number two on the centre-left Labor party’s candidate list.
“I’m optimistic and believe this gives us an edge: we are building ourselves for the long run.”
Tuesday’s election is being held amid a particularly bloody chapter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the UN warning recently that 2022 is on course to be the deadliest year for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank since the organisation started tracking fatalities in 2005. A total of 25 people have been killed in attacks on Israel and Israeli settlements.
Most of the months-long violence has been confined to Nablus and Jenin, cities in the north of the territory that have been subjected to Israeli army raids and citywide lockdowns reminiscent of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising.
A shooting attack in a settlement near the southern West Bank city of Hebron on Saturday, however, raised fears that the unrest may be spreading.
Ben-Gvir claimed his home was the target of the attack near an entrance to Kiryat Arba, but his comments were dismissed as untrue by the Israel Defence Forces shortly afterwards. - Guardian