Nuriel Zarifi was able to fully reopen his cafe in a residential Jerusalem neighborhood more than two weeks ago. Until then COVID-19 had made only takeout service possible, but now chairs and tables have been set up inviting people to sit down for a morning coffee and a pastry once again.
After three lengthy lockdowns and with almost half of the population fully vaccinated, Israel has been able to open up once again — just before Tuesday’s parliamentary election.
“A few times I was thinking: I had enough, I won’t go to vote,” Zarifi tells DW. “But then I see all this hate against Netanyahu, whatever he does, it’s not good. It pushed me to go and vote for him.” The cafe owner remains a longtime supporter of the conservative Likud party and its leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israelis are heading to the polls for the fourth time in two years. The most recent power-sharing government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu and the Blue and White party’s Benny Gantz collapsed in December. This time, and even more so than on the previous three occasions, the election is largely seen as a vote for or against Netanyahu, rather than in favor of any particular party.
Netanyahu, who is currently on trial for corruption charges, has held the premiership for 12 years and has become an increasingly divisive figure in Israeli politics. But this doesn’t bother Zarifi.
“Some people tell me: Why don’t you vote for change? For Yair Lapid or Gideon Saar?” he said, referring to some of Netanyahu’s main challengers in this election. “I just say close your eyes and see whether this guy can lead the country. When I close my eyes, I see Netanyahu. I feel more comfortable. Like in the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, I felt I can count on him. And then he bought the vaccines, he chose life.”
New elections, or more of the same?
Although many Israelis have given Netanyahu credit for procuring the vaccines, the government handling of the pandemic was often criticized last year. Many have also called for his resignation over the corruption charges. Among them was Maya Rimer, who has regularly taken part in the weekly anti-government protests.
For Rimer, the election is about more than the vaccination issue. “I would like to see the politicians actually serving us and not themselves,” Rimer told DW. The young Israeli hopes this election will bring an actual change in government, and not just usher in another election.
“It’s the fourth election and it doesn’t even seem like it’s going to be the last. It doesn’t seem like this is going to be an answer to anything,” she said.
The final polls published by Israeli media outlets on Friday projected that Netanyahu’s Likud party would remain the strongest, with between 29 and 32 seats in the Knesset, Israel’s 120-seat parliament. This would give Netanyahu a slight advantage for building a coalition. Two main blocs would then compete to form the next coalition government, but as yet there does not seem to be a clear path to the required 61-seat majority for anyone.
Netanyahu is expected to turn to his natural allies, the ultra-Orthodox parties and, this time, the small extremist far-right Religious Zionism alliance. However, this alliance would potentially need the support of the right-wing Yamina party, whose leader Naftali Bennett has remained ambiguous about whether he would join a coalition with the prime minister. Netanyahu has also courted Arab-Israeli voters from the small breakaway United Arab List party.
Even though Netanyahu’s election campaign touted the peace agreements he recently made with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, it is the much-admired vaccination drive against COVID-19 and the reopening of the economy that have earned him the most praise. To date, almost 50% of Israel’s total population has been fully vaccinated and the memory of the three hard lockdowns has faded.
“One hundred eighty prime ministers and presidents called Pfizer, called Moderna, they didn’t take the calls, they took my call,” said Netanyahu last week. “And I persuaded them that Israel will be the model of success for vaccines. But who will continue to do that? Not Lapid, not Bennett, not Gideon. They just don’t have it, I have it.”
‘Anyone but Netanyahu’ ticket
In contrast, his main challengers are essentially running on an “anyone but Netanyahu” ticket. These parties mainly come from the political right or center, but all of them are led by candidates who were once ministers in a Netanyahu-led government.
Foremost among those challengers is Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid, who Netanyahu singled out as his main opponent during the campaign. Lapid, the current opposition leader, has run a low-profile campaign focusing on issues of democracy, the economy and the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Final polls project 18-20 seats for Yesh Atid, keeping its spot as second-largest party after Likud. Last week, Lapid alerted voters by saying, “There is still an unprecedented number of people who are undecided, more than 10 seats’ worth. They need to know that if they don’t vote for Yesh Atid, then we’ll get a dark, racist, homophobic, extortionist government. In the end, we need a big force to bring about change.”
Meanwhile, on the right-wing ticket, there is ex-Likud politician Gideon Saar, who has fallen out with Netanyahu. However, his party A New Hope seems to have picked up only single-digit support in popularity polls.
And then there is Naftali Bennett, leader of the religious-nationalist Yamina party and a former education and defense minister under Netanyahu. He has openly challenged Netanyahu’s premiership, but has not ruled out joining a coalition with him.
“Today we have three to four leaders of the anti-Netanyahu camp standing divided against Netanyahu,” said Maoz Rosenthal, political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. “If you stand together but are divided, the ability to cooperate and to form a coalition is very limited. This is the complexity of this election.”
After polling stations close on Tuesday at 10 p.m. local time, all the Israeli TV channels will carry the first exit polls. Israel’s Central Elections Committee has warned that vote counting is expected to take more time than usual, due to pandemic-related precautions and the fact that special polling stations will be opened to accommodate COVID-19 patients and quarantined voters.
But when the focus turns to the aftermath of the upcoming election, the prospect of another difficult period of coalition negotiations, a possible stalemate or even a fifth election will once again occupy the minds of many Israeli voters.