Middle East

Israel’s Groundhog Day: A fourth election in two years.

Israelis went to the polls on Tuesday for the fourth time in two years, hoping to end a political deadlock that has left the country without a national budget or stable government in the middle of a pandemic.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is running for re-election despite standing trial on corruption charges, a decision that has divided the country and turned the election into a referendum on Mr. Netanyahu himself.

If re-elected, Mr. Netanyahu has promised to curb the power of the courts, setting the stage for a showdown between the judicial and executive branches of government that critics fear would cause a constitutional crisis. His opponents believe he wants to change the law to give himself immunity in his court case, a charge he denies.

While pre-election polls suggest that Mr. Netanyahu’s right-wing party, Likud, will emerge as the largest in the next Parliament, it is unclear whether his wider alliance of conservative, ultra-Orthodox Jewish and ultranationalist parties will win enough seats to form a parliamentary majority.

If no party can assemble a majority, the current impasse will continue and Israel could face a fifth election in a few months.

Mr. Netanyahu’s critics are counting on an ideologically incoherent array of opposition parties winning enough seats to form a majority — and then putting aside their political differences to create a functional coalition.

Even if they win enough seats, it will be tricky for them to unite. Parties opposed to Mr. Netanyahu include right-wingers, leftists and those representing Israel’s Arab minority.

The leading opposition candidate is a centrist former finance minister, Yair Lapid. To topple Mr. Netanyahu, he would need the support of Gideon Saar, a former Likud interior minister who shares many of Mr. Netanyahu’s political beliefs and who broke with the prime minister last year after Mr. Netanyahu refused to step down while on trial.

Mr. Lapid’s fate is also complicated by Naftali Bennett, another right-winger who has not ruled out working with Mr. Netanyahu’s critics but says he won’t back Mr. Lapid for prime minister. And both Mr. Bennett and Mr. Saar could balk at forming a coalition with a pair of Arab parties whose support would be crucial in forcing Mr. Netanyahu from office.

The campaign largely focused on Mr. Netanyahu himself, diverting attention from more existential issues such as Israel’s secular-religious divide, let alone the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Netanyahu centered his campaign on his world-leading vaccine rollout, which has given a majority of Israelis at least one vaccine dose.

But his coronavirus record also makes him vulnerable. Mr. Netanyahu has often been accused of politicizing pandemic policymaking, not least when he soft-pedaled raising the fines given to violators of lockdown restrictions. That was interpreted as a friendly gesture to ultra-Orthodox Israelis, who were responsible for a high rate of lockdown violations. Their political parties are integral to Mr. Netanyahu’s efforts to form a coalition after the election.

Critics also accused him of having sabotaged budget negotiations at the height of the pandemic in November. That action — for which he blames his coalition partners — collapsed his coalition government and triggered today’s elections.

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