Mar 22, 2021 - World

Israel's election is a big opportunity for Netanyahu

Netanyahu campaigns in Jerusalem on the eve of the election. Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP via Getty

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will contest his fourth election in two years on Tuesday, fighting for a parliamentary majority that could help him undercut his ongoing corruption trial.

Why it matters: Three inconclusive elections have left Israel locked in a prolonged political crisis as Netanyahu fights for his political and legal survival. This time, Israel's longest-serving prime minister faces a divided opposition and has a clear opportunity to finally win a 61-seat majority.

The state of play: The latest polls show Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc and a broad anti-Netanyahu bloc both winning 60 seats.

What to watch: If Netanyahu manages to get to 61, he will form the most religious and conservative coalition in the history of the country. His rivals claim that such a government could challenge the democratic character of the country.

  • Netanyahu denies that he plans to fire the attorney general or pass laws to suspend his corruption trial, but several of his would-be coalition partners have expressed support for such steps.
  • If Netanyahu’s bloc narrowly fails to win a majority, Israel is likely to head for a fifth round of elections.

Driving the news: Both Netanyahu and his primary rival, centrist Yair Lapid, rallied their bases on the eve of the election.

  • Lapid needs to boost turnout in Tel Aviv, Haifa and the other big cities in the center of Israel.
  • Netanyahu is trying to mobilize voters in his Likud party’s strongholds in the north and south of Israel and in Jerusalem.
  • The outcome could come down to a question of which small parties from either side reach the 3.25% electoral threshold to enter the Knesset.
  • Turnout among Israel’s Arab minority, expected to slump this time around, will also be crucial to determining the outcome.

Flashback: Netanyahu and his centrist rival, Benny Gantz, signed a power-sharing deal last April that outraged many of Gantz’s supporters by allowing Netanyahu to retain power for 18 months while stipulating that Gantz would then rotate in as prime minister.

  • Before power could change hands, the government collapsed in December, along with Gantz's political standing.

Zoom in: One of the most interesting players in this election is Naftali Bennett, a right-wing former tech entrepreneur who had until recently been seen as a kingmaker because neither bloc would be able to reach 61 without him.

  • His party's poll numbers began slipping as Netanyahu told supporters Bennett would ally with Lapid against his fellow conservatives.
  • Under pressure, Bennett went on a pro-Netanyahu channel and signed a document on live TV promising not to join a government headed by Lapid — effectively aligning himself with Netanyahu.

What’s next: Exit polls will be published at 9pm local time (3pm ET), but the pollsters will be extra cautious because thousands of ballots will be counted late due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The bottom line: These elections will likely be decided by one or two seats, meaning a few thousand votes could change the outcome and the entire country.

Go deeper: Thousands protest outside Netanyahu's home.

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