Israel election 2021: Benjamin Netanyahu struggles to convert vaccine goodwill into votes

Preliminary results in Israel's election are due through Tuesday night and on Wednesday

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Israelis voted on Tuesday in their country’s fourth election in two years, with exit polls showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have a chance to form a coalition and stay in power.

The three TV polls showed Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party winning between 31 and 33 seats, although weeks of uncertainty are expected before a government is formed and a fifth election cannot be ruled out.

“I call on everyone to go out of your homes and realise the democratic right to vote,” he said earlier on Tuesday as he cast his ballot in Jerusalem.

Turnout was lower than last March and reached 60.9 per cent at 8pm, the Central Elections Committee said, hinting at voter apathy after three elections in swift succession.

Mr Netanyahu’s popularity has endured despite corruption charges. He appeared in court last month where he denied wrongdoing in three cases.

Jerusalem coffee shop owner Brandon Treger described the premier as “a phenomenal manager of this country”.

Mr Netanyahu has overseen an aggressive vaccination drive in which more than 55 per cent of Israelis have received one dose, allowing the country’s economy to reopen.

But his government has come under criticism from rights groups for providing vaccines to only about 2 per cent of the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank.

“I think his management’s really good but I don’t trust Netanyahu with absolute power. I want him to have good partners,” said Mr Treger, 50, without saying for whom he voted.

The Likud leader will need the support of smaller parties if he is to gain a 61-seat majority in Parliament.

Mr Netanyahu would have to rely once again on religious and right-wing parties, with the possible inclusion of the far-right Religious Zionism alliance.

Led by Bezalel Smotrich, the alliance is forecast to gain six or seven seats, according to exit polls.

Such a result would hand a parliamentary seat to lawyer Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is widely seen as a disciple of the late ultra-nationalist rabbi Meir Kahane.

Mr Treger said he was personally acquainted with Mr Ben-Gvir who “doesn’t talk hatred of anybody”.

Netanyahu, Lapid cast ballots in Israel's fourth elections in two years

Netanyahu, Lapid cast ballots in Israel's fourth elections in two years

Mr Netanyahu has governed since 2009 and has styled himself as the ultimate statesman, steering Israel to four normalisation deals with Arab nations last year and describing himself as a firm friend of former US president Donald Trump.

Likud has well outperformed its closest opponent, the Yesh Atid party led by Yair Lapid, which is forecast to win 16 to 18 seats.

Running under a “sanity” campaign slogan, the former finance minister said on Tuesday that he was the alternative to a “racist, homophobic, Orthodox, extremist government”.

Mr Lapid has won the support of voter Judith Ovadia, who said she was dissatisfied with Mr Netanyahu’s leadership.

“I want Yair Lapid, because he’s very honest and all the time, what he says is what he does and he never changes his mind,” said Ms Ovadia, 69, who was visiting Jerusalem from the northern city of Haifa.

One of her companions voted for Mr Netanyahu while another had switched from the premier to Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Yamina party.

“I think Netanyahu on the whole is a very good prime minister for us, he represents us well all over the world," the Yamina voter said.

"But many people want a change. They might not even know who to vote for, they just want someone different."

While exit polls show the premier may be able to reach a majority, it remains unclear whether parties from across the political spectrum who oppose his rule would be able to form their own coalitions.

The Arab-led Joint List, which gained 15 seats in last year’s election, is due to win eight, exit polls show, having been hindered by the Ra’am party’s decision to run on its own ticket.

The split came after Ra’am leader Mansour Abbas suggested he would be willing to co-operate with Mr Netanyahu, a controversial position for the Joint List, which has vowed to stand in opposition.

But Mr Abbas’s gamble appears to have backfired, with exit polls suggesting Ra’am would fail to pass the electoral threshold.

If confirmed by the final tally, the results would significantly diminish the voice of the Arab-Israeli community in Parliament.

Benny Gantz, who rose to prominence before Israel’s third election as Mr Netanyahu’s top challenger, appeared to have fared slightly better than expected.

Leader of the Blue and White alliance, which exit polls put at seven to eight seats, Mr Gantz saw his popularity fall after he broke an election pledge not to govern alongside Mr Netanyahu.

In May, the political rivals formed a coalition that was beset with mistrust and infighting, lasting seven months before collapsing when the government failed to pass a budget.

After two years of political turmoil, Israelis may have to wait weeks to find out if legislators are able to form a stable government.

Following the exit polls, it could take days for the final results to be known, with coronavirus measures slowing down the count and a large number of absentee ballots.

Consultations will follow between party leaders and President Reuven Rivlin, who will authorise a candidate to form a coalition.

A fifth round of elections will be scheduled if no candidate is able to get a government together by early July.

Speaking at a Jerusalem polling station, Mr Rivlin warned that the spate of elections “erode public trust in the democratic process”.

“I am voting today for the last time as president, but above all, I do so as a concerned citizen. Very concerned,” he said.