Israel holds national elections

Israelis are voting in their fifth election in four years, in a tight race that pits centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid against right-wing former premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

By Jonathan Hessen and Erin Viner

Just over 6.7 million Israelis are eligible to vote for the 25th Knesset at some 12,000 polling stations across the country to cast their preferred ballots for Jerusalem’s future leadership.

Despite fears of “voter fatigue,” by 2 PM, turnout was 38.9%, marking the highest at that stage in 23 years, said Orly Ades, who heads Israel’s Central Elections Committee entrusted to run the balloting process.

While casting his vote in the Israeli capital, President Isaac Herzog hailed the nation’s “democratic right,” saying, “This is a great privilege to partake in the voting process, which are free, clean and equal.”

Pointing out that, “Billions of people around the world don’t receive this right. Countries around the world don’t grant this right.,” the Israeli President added, “We need to be thankful, truly, as a nation that we have a democratic system in which every citizen can influence. I want to reiterate that voting makes a difference without a shadow of a doubt. Anyone who thinks that his or her vote doesn’t matter is wrong. I therefore call on all citizens of this country: exercise your democratic right -and go to vote!”

Describing today’s election as a choice “between the future and the past,” Prime Minister Yair Lapid called on citizens to vote “for the future of our children, for the future of our country.” According to the latest poll, Lapid’s Yesh Atid faction is projected to win the second highest number of mandates.

Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party are forecast to secure the most votes. He nevertheless expressed concern earlier today, after only 15.9 % of constituents cast ballots as of 10 AM and 28.4% by noon; marking the highest turnout since the 1999 race when he lost after his first term in office to former Premier Ehud Barak.

“It’s a great privilege to vote. I obviously say it to our supporters but also generally to the citizens of Israel. I told you I was a little bit worried, but God willing and with the help of the people who hear us, we’ll finish the day with a smile,” said the former premier, adding, “But it’s up to the people.”

Higher turnout has historically favored Israel’s centrist and left-wing parties at the expense of the neo-conservative and sectorial factions.

Neither Lapid’s nor Netanyahu’s blocs are expected to win secure a necessary majority to form a coalition. As no political faction has ever garnered a simple majority of 61 out of the 120 parliamentary seats, the electoral process requires coalition building by the winner of the most votes with any of the smaller parties that pass the 3.25% threshold.

Lapid succeeded at forming the 36th Israeli government in the last election on 23 March 2021, after Netanyahu, with his larger Likud party, failed to attract sufficient partners to form a viable coalition. Thus, Naftali Bennett of the Yamina party, with only 7 mandates, was able to join a unity government with Lapid that saw each become premier under a rotation agreement.

“I think these elections are not about the biggest party – but about the party that can,” said National Unity party leader, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, this morning. “It’s against incitement, against division, defamation and it’s towards unity, we will get to it, therefore, I am calling upon everybody to go vote so that we can meet for happy events and less in elections,” he said.

For many, today’s election is about whether the public favors a return to office by Netanyahu, who is Israel’s longest serving premier.

“In terms of what this election is about, it’s about Benjamin Netanyahu and what he has come to represent. For some of the electorate — in fact the most sizable individual following, that anyone enjoys but nevertheless much smaller than a majority. For that electorate, he is right no matter what he does or fails to do, and he is to be followed no matter where he leads. For good one half of Israeli voters, he’s as disagreeable as he is agreeable to those who follow him,” commented political analyst Amotz Asa-El, a former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post and Fellow at Hartman Institute.

For Netanyahu to return to the helm of power within Israel’s current political landscape, he will likely opt for a coalition government that may be the most right-wing in Israel’s history. This would probably entail inclusion of the ultra-radical Otzma Yehudit faction – whose alliance with the Religious Zionism may come in as the third largest winner. Otzma Yehudit Chairman Itamar Ben-Gvir is an ideological successor of the Kach party, which Israel has banned and the United States has designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).

“Thousands of civilians turn to me with feelings of not being safe, (saying) ‘We are afraid to walk in the street’. There’s lack of responsibility, there is no protection and those who hate us get more confident. Therefore, I announce this evening that I intend to demand the role of Internal Security minister, in the right-wing government that will be formed, God willing,” said Ben-Gvir while casting his own ballot today.

Inclusion of Ben-Gvir in the Israeli government would likely further embitter Palestinians and test the country’s relations with the US, as well as other allies and Arab countries with which it has diplomatic ties.

If Lapid’s bloc of diverse political partners comes out ahead of Netanyahu, he will likely try to form a similar coalition government as the one he currently leads, spanning left to right.

If no clear majority emerges, either Netanyahu or Lapid could be tapped by President Isaac Herzog to try to form a government. If one fails, the other would get a shot. A double failure could even see a third candidate, like centrist Gantz, be awarded his own opportunity to cobble the next government together.

It is highly unlikely but not impossible that Lapid or Gantz would join a Likud-led national unity government. Both of the centrist leaders have ruled out serving under Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges he denies.

If one of the candidates succeeds at building a viable coalition, Lapid would remain in office as head of a caretaker government until Israeli voters would be required to head back to the polls yet again.