Israel’s elections are very much up for grabs as Netanyahu looks to make a comeback
JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israelis went to the polls for the fifth time in four years on Tuesday, as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bid for a comeback in a race that could affect the performance of a far-right party that has risen to prominence. from the brink to become a potential coalition king.
Voter anger at political parties is growing after years of gridlock, but growing support for the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism bloc has fueled the campaign for both supporters and opponents of the group and its allies. Itamar Ben-Gvir.
At 2 p.m., turnout was 38.9%, the highest at this stage in 23 years, Israel’s Central Election Commission chief Orly Ades said, though it was unclear how strong early voter turnout would affect the results.
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, is on trial on corruption charges he denies, but his right-wing Likud party is still expected to be the largest in parliament.
However, final polls last week showed him still short of the 61 seats needed for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, opening the prospect of weeks of coalition wrangling and possibly new elections.
“There’s a sense of hopelessness in all these choices,” said Hagit Cohen, a 46-year-old social worker from Tel Aviv. He said he was voting for outgoing centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid, rather than the centre-left parties he usually supported.
Security and rising prices topped the list of voters’ concerns in a campaign fueled by defections from the unlikely ruling coalition of right-wing, centrist and Arab parties formed after the last election.
The campaign, which began weeks after a brief conflict with the Islamic Jihad group in Gaza in August, also comes amid months of violence in the occupied West Bank, with almost daily attacks and clashes.
However, the conflict has had little direct impact on the campaign, which has been clouded by the outsized personality of Netanyahu, whose legal battles have fueled the impasse that has dogged Israel’s political system since he was indicted in 2019 on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
During the voting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu warned his supporters about the likely high turnout of his opponents, saying:
While Netanyahu’s legal problems continued, Ben-Gvir and far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich fed into Likud’s traditional hawkish base, and the once-marginal Religious Zionism is now set to be the third-largest party in parliament.
Ben-Gvir, a former member of the Kach group, which is on Israeli and US terror watch lists, has softened some of his previous stances, but the prospect of joining a Netanyahu-led coalition government threatens Washington.
Voting in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, where he lives, Ben Gvir told reporters.
Lapid has campaigned on diplomatic advances with countries including Turkey and Lebanon, as well as Israel’s strong economic performance, which is relatively well positioned to weather a troubled global environment.
Lapid said next to the supporters in one of the polling stations in Tel Aviv. “This election is between the future and the past, so go vote today for the future of our children, the future of our country.”
Reporting by James McKenzie, Dan Williams, Rami Ayub and Henriette Chakar; Editing by Andrew Heavens, William McLean and Hugh Lawson
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