Elections in Israel in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis

Elections in Israel in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis
Election billboards in Tel Aviv. Yair Lapid, the main opposition leader (to the left) for a "sane government". Benjamin Netanyahu, the "Leader" (to the right).

The fourth parliamentary elections on Tuesday are again all about the future of the incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or what he stands for and if he will manage this time to gain the magical 61 seats of the 120 seats in the parliament to form a government.

In fact, under Netanyahu’s long-lasting rule, Israel has become more ungovernable by every year with everything focusing on his prosecutions on charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud, and his attempts to avoid a trial. The elections today (23 March) are the fourth in two years and have by now become a parody of democracy with no debate between the many parties about Israel’s political, economic and social problems.

In most democracies, elections have been postponed because of the coronavirus crisis, unless authoritarian leaders are taking the opportunity for a power grab through elections or a state of emergency. The only reason for the elections in Israel while the crisis is still on-going is Netanyahu’s aim of forming a new government with a razor-thin majority which can grant him legal immunity.

The elections were announced last December when the coalition government between Netanyahu’s Likud party and the then main opposition party Blue White under the former chief of the general staff Benny Gantz broke down on the issue of adopting a state budget.

Gantz had a small chance of ousting Netanyahu and forming his own government after the previous election (2 March 2020) but after some of his party members deserted him was lured to form a national unity government to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

Likud and Blue White signed a detailed legal document, based on the idea of a rotating prime ministership, but it was not worth the paper it was written on. Gantz who admits that he was cheated by Netanyahu but still defends his decision as the only possible one has been punished by the voters and what remains of his party might not pass the election threshold.

In the previous elections, the voter turnout exceeded 70 % but this time it will probably be much lower. Many voters across the political spectrum have lost all trust in the government and are disappointed by Netanyahu’s handling of the corona crisis. Voters will find it meaningless to cast their vote again when the most likely outcome is a new stalemate and new elections for the fifth time.

To Netanyahu’s credit can be said that he understood early on that only vaccines would beat the virus and bring Israel “back to life”. Israel bought enough vaccines to vaccinate all its citizens and launched an effective rollout thanks to its Health Care Organisations.

The elections are held under extraordinary precautions, with an increased number of ballot boxes and voting stations. Even infected people in quarantine are allowed to travel to vote at a voting station. However, mail voting in Israel or from embassies for Israeli citizens living abroad are not allowed despite the coronavirus crisis.

For a time, it looked like Netanyahu was gambling, with worrying daily key indicators despite the increasing number of vaccinated people, but the figures have dropped significantly just in time for the elections. Daily infection rates are now below 1,000, the percentage of positive corona tests is only about 2 percent and the R-factor around 0,60.

The last opinion polls before the elections show that the parties opposing Netanyahu will receive about 54 mandates and those supporting him will receive 51 mandates. The right-wing Yamina party under Naftali Bennett, a former coalition partner who has not made up his mind, might become the king-maker after the elections.

Some minor parties may not pass the threshold of 3,25 % of the total votes and their votes might be lost unless they will be allocated to other parties because of surplus votes agreements between them.

The final outcome of the elections will probably not be known until Friday. The most likely outcome is a tie but a far-right and more extreme coalition under Netanyahu cannot be excluded. The EU will congratulate the winner, whoever it will be, and look forward to work with the new government but it might find it more difficult than ever with a far-right government.

Update: After the polling stations closed at 22 pm on Tuesday evening, the first exit polls predicted that the pro-Netanyahu bloc will receive 61 seats, if the right-wing party Yamina with 7 seats will join it, and that the anti-Netanyahu bloc will receive 59 seats. The final results, however, will take some days to determine and may change the outcome.

The centre-left parties, including Benny Gantz’ Blue White party, passed the election threshold with some margin but an Arab party, the United Arab List, failed to do it according to the exit polls. Overall voter turnout at about 67 % was the lowest one since 2009, especially among Arab voters.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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