Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struggled again for his political life on Tuesday when Israelis voted in the country’s fourth general election in two years.
Polls predict a close race. Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party is expected to win the most seats in the 120-seat parliament known as the Knesset. However, it remains unclear whether he can form a majority coalition.
Not a single list of candidates has been able to form a government majority in Israel’s history. The party that can cobble together a 61-seat majority coalition forms the next government.
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While the Israelis are voting for parties rather than politicians, the election has once again become a highly charged referendum on Israel’s controversial and longest-serving prime minister.
Prior to the vote, Netanyahu presented himself as a global statesman who is best placed to tackle the complex diplomatic and security challenges facing the only Jewish state in the world. He has referred to Israel’s agreements to normalize relations with four Arab states last year as evidence of his diplomatic know-how.
He has also touted Israel’s world-leading vaccine launch, which has allowed the country to reopen most of its economy after months of government lockdowns.
However, the Prime Minister’s critics have accused him of poorly managing the coronavirus for much of the past year, pointing to the fact that Israel recorded this more than 6,000 Covid-19 deaths. They also point to his 2019 bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges.
Allegations against the Prime Minister include receiving lavish gifts from wealthy friends and making regulatory decisions in exchange for positive coverage on an Israeli news site. He is the first seated Prime Minister to be charged with a crime, but denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a “witch hunt”.
Netanyahu has been unable to capitalize on its close relationship with former President Donald Trump, which has become a feature of Netanyahu’s recent campaigns. President Joe Biden stayed out of the Israeli election and Netanyahu barely mentioned him.
Netanyahu is also being squeezed by a number of former allies who have formed their own parties.
Behind Likud is the Yesh Atid party, which has turned out to be the central challenger of the centrists against Netanyahu.
Tuesday voters are required to wear masks and special voting stations have been set up for those in quarantine.
Israel’s fourth election in two years comes after internal disagreements paralyzed the emergency government formed between Netanyahu and his then main political rival Benny Gantz. The vote was triggered by the government’s failure to agree on a budget in December.
This is followed by three inconclusive Israeli elections since April 2019. The Israel Democracy Institute Earlier this month released a poll that found that less than a third of respondents thought the upcoming elections would resolve the political stalemate in Israel.
Exit polls are expected to be published around 10:00 pm. Local time (4 p.m. ET). The Central Election Committee said the final results are not expected to be clarified until Friday.
Negotiations to form a majority coalition could take much longer, and if the political deadlock is not broken, further elections could be pending.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Paul Goldman contributed.