JERUSALEM – Israelis will vote in elections for the fourth time in two years on Tuesday in hopes of breaking a seemingly endless electoral cycle and political deadlock that left the country with no national budget during a pandemic.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopes Israel’s world-leading immunization program, which has brought the country closer to normal in recent days, will give him and its right-wing allies an advantage and a stable majority that has proved elusive in three previous rounds has proven.
But Mr Netanyahu, prime minister since 2009, is running for re-election while on trial on corruption charges – a dynamic that opposition parties hope will lead voters to drive him out of office for good.
In reality, however, polls show that none of the blocs has a clear path to a majority, so many Israelis have to prepare for another inconclusive outcome and a possible fifth election later this year.
Here’s what else you need to know.
Why is Israel holding so many elections?
The simplest explanation is that since 2019 neither Mr Netanyahu nor his opponents have been able to win enough seats in parliament to form a coalition government with a stable majority. That left Mr Netanyahu in office, either as caretaker prime minister or at the head of a fragile coalition with some of his fiercest rivals, albeit not entirely in power. And that has forced the country to vote again and again in order to overcome the impasse.
According to analysts, underlying this drama is one of Mr. Netanyahu’s motives for seeking re-election – his suspicion that the best place to fight his prosecution is from the Prime Minister’s office. They say he is ready to put the country up for election after the elections – until he wins a stronger parliamentary majority that could grant him immunity from prosecution.
“I don’t know of any serious thinker who says that Israel is going to another round of voting for reasons other than Netanyahu’s personal interests,” said Gayil Talshir, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
However, supporters of Mr. Netanyahu reject the idea that his personal interests drove Israel from election to election. They claim that his critics simply deny that Mr. Netanyahu is a fierce and savvy competitor, and they accuse Mr. Gantz of making the coalition untenable.
What prompted this fourth election?
A series of disagreements between Mr. Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, his rival and centrist coalition partner, culminated in December when they failed to agree on a state budget. This led to parliament dissolving and forcing new elections, although the government remains in place for the time being.
The rivals banded together after the third election last April, saying that it should be ensured that Israel has a government to lead the country through the pandemic. As part of their power-sharing agreement, Mr Gantz would assume the post of Prime Minister this November. But the coalition partners never got along, and each side accuses the other of failing to work together in good faith.
Mr Netanyahu’s critics claim that he acted out of personal interest when he battled Mr Gantz for the budget and advocated a one-year plan instead of the two years provided for in the coalition agreement. The budget blockade by forcing a new election gave Mr. Netanyahu another attempt to form a government rather than staying in the current coalition and ceding power to Mr. Gantz later this year.
But Mr. Netanyahu blamed Mr. Gantz for the break, saying that Mr. Gantz had refused to compromise with Mr. Netanyahu on several government appointments.
How has the political deadlock affected the Israelis?
The deadlock has forced Israel to forego a state budget during one of the most profound health and economic crises in its history, undermining long-term economic planning, including the development of major infrastructure projects.
The stasis has delayed the appointment of key state officials, including the prosecutor and senior officials in the Justice and Treasury departments. And members of the coalition, including Mr Netanyahu, have been accused of politicizing government decision-making even more than usual in order to gain a possible advantage for the elections.
The ongoing turmoil, fueled by Mr. Netanyahu’s longstanding legal troubles, has changed Israeli politics. Voters today are divided less by ideology than by whether they are for or against Mr Netanyahu.
And in view of the close race, Jewish politicians are increasingly looking for members of the Arab minority of Israel in order to overcome the impasse. Arab citizens of Israel make up about 20 percent of the population. Once ostracized, they have become an important constituency in this election campaign.
Who are Mr. Netanyahu’s main competitors this time?
In a sign of how the political map has changed, two of Mr. Netanyahu’s main challengers in this election cycle are also rights. Gideon Saar is a former home secretary for Mr. Netanyahu’s party and Naftali Bennett is Mr. Netanyahu’s former chief of staff.
The third biggest challenger is Yair Lapid, a former centrist broadcast journalist whose party is Mr. Netanyahu’s greatest challenge.
Mr Gantz is no longer seen as a viable threat to the Prime Minister. According to polls, his party may not even win a seat, largely because of the anger of his former supporters over his decision to form a unity government with Mr. Netanyahu at all, an arrangement he had promised not to enter into.
How do Israeli elections work?
The parliament, known in Hebrew as the Knesset, has 120 seats that are proportionally allocated to parties that receive more than 3.25 percent of the vote.
The system almost guarantees that no single party will win a complete majority, which often gives tiny parties a great deal of leverage in forming coalitions. The system allows a wide range of votes in parliament, but it is difficult to form stable coalitions.
It could be weeks or possibly months before a new government is formed – if one can be formed – and at any point in the process a majority of the Knesset could vote to disband, forcing another election.
In the days following the election, Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, will give a lawmaker four weeks to try to form a coalition. Usually he gives this mandate to the leader of the party that won the highest number of seats, probably Mr. Netanyahu. But he could give it to another legislature like Mr Lapid, who he believes has a better chance of bringing together a viable coalition.
If this legislature’s efforts fail, the president can give a second candidate an additional four weeks to form a government. If this process comes to a standstill, Parliament itself can nominate a third candidate who will try. And if he or she fails, parliament dissolves and another election is scheduled.
In the meantime, Mr. Netanyahu remains Prime Minister. If the impasse somehow lasts through November, Mr Gantz might still follow him. The power-sharing agreement the couple agreed on last April was enshrined in Israeli law and stipulated that Mr Gantz would become prime minister in November 2021.
How did the coronavirus affect the election?
In recent weeks, Israel has been sending children back to school, reopening restaurants for in-house meals, and allowing vaccinated people to attend concerts and theater performances.
Mr Netanyahu hopes that the success of introducing vaccines in Israel, where the majority of Israelis received at least one dose, will help lead him to victory.
But his pandemic can also cost him. Some voters believe he politicized certain key decisions – for example, capping some fines for violating anti-virus regulations to levels well below the recommendations of public health experts.
Critics felt this was a sop for ultra-Orthodox Israelis, some of whom violated coronavirus restrictions on mass gatherings. Mr Netanyahu will need the support of two ultra-Orthodox parties to stay in office after the election.
Voting by post is not possible in Israel. In order to prevent the spread of the virus, special polling stations are being set up for quarantined people and for Covid-19 patients.
Could there be a fifth election later in the year?
Nobody rules it out. Mr Netanyahu’s party, Likud, is expected to be the largest party with around 30 seats. But his allies may not win enough seats to give him a 61 majority.
And while recent polls suggest the opposition parties will collectively win more than 61 seats, it is unclear whether their profound ideological differences will allow them to come together.
The key player could be Mr. Bennett. Although he wants to replace Mr. Netanyahu, he has not ruled out joining his government either.
Patrick Kingsley and Isabel Kershner contributed to the coverage.