Israel election: Polls open as Netanyahu bids for record sixth term

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  November 1, 2022

Controversial far-right Religious Zionism bloc has gained momentum in recent weeks and may become coalition kingmaker.

Israelis began voting for the fifth time in less than four years on Tuesday with only small shifts in voter turnout likely to decide the ambitions of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has allied with far-right parties in his bid to win a record sixth term in office.

Final opinion polls published last week showed Netanyahu 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.

Israelis have until 20:00 GMT to cast their ballot, after which complex bargaining to build a coalition will get underway.

“I hope we will finish the day with a smile but it’s up to the people,” Netanyahu said as he voted in Jerusalem.

The former prime minister is on trial on corruption charges, which he denies, but his Likud party is still expected to finish as the largest in parliament.

Security and surging prices have topped the list of voter concerns in a campaign triggered by outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s decision to seek an early election following defections from his ruling coalition.

Lapid, a former TV anchor, on Tuesday urged the electorate to cast their ballot.

“Go and vote today for the future of our children, for the future of our country. Vote well!” he said at a Tel Aviv polling station.

Lapid was the architect of the last coalition, which included the United Arab List party, known as Ra’am in its Hebrew acronym, as well as others from the right and left.

That unlikely alliance was made possible after Ra’am’s leader Mansour Abbas pulled his party from a united slate with other parties led by Palestinian citizens of Israel, paving the way for him to join the coalition.

Recent months have seen further divisions within the bloc representing Palestinian citizens of Israel, which is running on three separate lists in a move expected to weaken the minority’s representation in parliament.

‘Full right-wing government’

The campaign takes place against a backdrop of months of Israeli raids against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli police urged settlers and citizens to carry guns on election day, as the army deployed additional troops into the West Bank fearing potential attacks, public broadcaster Kan reported.

Police on Sunday told licensed and well-trained gun-owners to keep their weapons on them on Tuesday and in the near future. 

As Netanyahu’s legal problems have continued, Itamar Ben-Gvir and fellow far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich have eaten into Likud’s traditional hawkish base and their once-marginal Religious Zionism bloc, which has gained momentum in recent weeks, could come third in the election.

In the past, Smotrich has called for apartheid-style segregation between Jewish and Arab women in the country’s maternity wards.

Ben-Gvir has previously called for disloyal politicians to be deported from Israel, along with Palestinians who throw stones and Molotov cocktails at police.

Ben-Gvir, who has faced dozens of charges of hate speech against Palestinians, vowed on Tuesday there will be a “full right-wing government” led by Netanyahu.

US concerns

If Netanyahu and his allies are able to cobble together a working coalition, the extremist views of his allies are likely to gain even more attention in the international arena. 

According to Walla, an Israeli website, Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog during a visit to the US last week was forced to allay fears put to him by officials in the Biden administration that members of far-right parties could be appointed to any new coalition government.

Sunday’s report said Washington fears that if leaders of the far-right parties receive senior positions it could damage relations between the US and Israel.

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed is reported to have warned Netanyahu in private that any cooperation with extreme right-wing parties could damage nascent relations between the countries.

Israel has faced several election cycles since 2019, the year Netanyahu, now 73, was charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three cases that he describes as a “rigged” political witch-hunt meant to keep him out of office.

According to the Israeli Central Elections Committee, 209,000 first-time voters will participate in the coming election who did not vote in March 2021, the last time elections were held.

Many of those voting for the first time, the majority of whom are Jewish, are expected to favour right and far-right parties over the left.