JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israel’s voters, who include settlers in the occupied West Bank, Tel Aviv residents eyeing change and Arabs in annexed east Jerusalem, are days away from their fourth election in less than two years.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign has highlighted Israel’s world-beating coronavirus vaccination effort and deals establishing ties with Arab nations.
His challengers accuse him of corruption, kowtowing to ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and placing his political interests above those of the nation.
They hope to oust him from an office he’s held for a record 12 consecutive years.
But the field is more fractured than in recent elections, which pitted Mr Netanyahu against a main challenger.
Polls now show Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party in the lead, but former allies Gideon Saar and Naftali Bennett are challenging from the right.
The centrist Yesh Atid party, led by Mr Yair Lapid, is polling second, while the once-dominant left is languishing far behind.
Voters told AFP how they view the March 23 vote.
Mr Yoram Bitan: ‘I will not change’
Mr Yoram Bitan, 54, immigrated from Marseilles to Migdal Oz in the West Bank.
He is one of some 475,000 Jewish settlers in the territory Israel has occupied since 1967, but where Palestinians hope to create their state.
Like many settlers, Mr Bitan backs Mr Netanyahu.
“I shall continue to vote for Bibi and I will not change,” he said, using the Prime Minister’s nickname.
“He took our country forward.”
Mr Bitan said he hopes Israel will annex the entire West Bank, while allowing Palestinians “to live with us in peace”.
Mr Netanyahu has voiced support for annexing parts of the territory, but suspended those plans in exchange for diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates.
“I didn’t come to occupy but I came to live here, to be near Jerusalem, in a rural setting,” Mr Bitan said, taking a break from tending vineyards in the rolling hills.
“I love the land and I think that my roots are there.”
Ms Devorah Treatman: ‘Practical optimism’
Ms Devorah Treatman, 26, immigrated from Philadelphia in 2013 and served in Israel’s army.
The Tel Aviv resident says she sees hope in Mr Lapid’s party Yesh Atid, which means “there is a future”.
“That’s kind of what they represent: practical optimism,” Ms Treatman said.
“They have a vision of how to make the country better, and actually have plans on how to accomplish it.”
In yet another election that has become a referendum on Mr Netanyahu, Ms Treatman said she hoped for new leadership.
“I don’t think we can have actual change with the same people in charge.”
Mr Yitzhak Richard: ‘Our whole life is with the community’
Jerusalem businessman Yitzhak Richard plans to follow the advice of his rabbi and vote for a party that will represent ultra-Orthodox Jews like him.
“For everything I do in my personal life, I consult with people smarter than me,” said Mr Richard, 30.
“Sometimes it’s with rabbis, sometimes it’s with professionals. It is important not to decide on your own all the time.”
Parties representing Israel’s strictly observant Jews were once kingmakers in Israeli politics, but are now in Mr Netanyahu’s camp.
Mr Richard did not say which party he’d pick, but emphasised loyalty to the ultra-Orthodox bloc.
“The unity of the ultra-Orthodox society makes it almost unrealistic for an ultra-Orthodox to vote for another party. Our whole life is with the community: everything, everything, everything, everything.”
Mr Amer Nasser: ‘Peaceful coexistence’
East Jerusalem lawyer Amer Nasser, a Palestinian with an Israeli passport, said he was not swayed by Mr Netanyahu clinching accords with a string of Arab states.
“Netanyahu is very interested in foreign relations with Arab countries and is not very interested in making peace with the Palestinians, despite the fact that they are originally the people of this region and live in it,” he said.
Mr Nasser, 48, plans to vote for the Joint List, the alliance supported by many Arab Israelis, who make up around a fifth of the population.
He is one of few Palestinians in east Jerusalem with Israeli citizenship or the right to vote in Knesset elections.
Mr Nasser said he hoped his vote could bring positive change.
“We hope that there will be peaceful coexistence, peace between Palestinians and Israelis.”
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