Israelis returned to polling stations early Tuesday for an unprecedented fourth time in two years in what is being largely seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's continuance at the helm of affairs amid his ongoing trial on corruption charges as well as his handling of the pandemic.
The elections were called barely seven months after the last government was formed after the Likud and Blue and White party failed to agree on a budget by a December 23 deadline.
The two parties had fought each other bitterly in the three ultimately inconclusive elections throughout 2019 and 2020 but agreed in May 2020 to form a power-sharing government with a rotating premiership between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz. The unity government collapsed in December.
As per the election commission, 6,578,084 Israelis are eligible to vote for any of the 38 parties running in the elections in 13,685 polling stations across the country, including 750 special polling stations for the sick and quarantined due to COVID-19.
Exit polls will be broadcast by the leading channels Tuesday night but the final results will be out only on March 31 after the votes from special polling stations, of soldiers, emissaries and prisoners are also properly tallied by Thursday or Friday.
Buoyed by a successful vaccination drive, one of the fastest in the world per capita, Netanyahu, 71, has put it at the forefront of his campaign claiming that under his leadership Israel has become the first country in the world to beat the COVID-19 pandemic. He yet again faces a tough challenge of putting together a coalition post-elections with some determined "friends turn foes" looking to end his long-run.
The Prime Minister has made Israel's handling of the pandemic, especially its robust vaccine drive, personal by regular appearances in nationally televised addresses towards the beginning of the pandemic and later obsessively negotiating vaccine deals with pharmaceutical companies. Israel has reported 828,764 coronavirus cases so far with 6,109 deaths.
Netanyahu's early recognition of the perils of the pandemic has been hailed by several international leaders, and also political analysts who appreciated his political acumen in identifying an opportunity in a crisis while most of the world failed to grasp the intensity of the problem.
Netanyahu hailed the country's "green" COVID-19 vaccination passports recently, saying Israel was "coming to life". and his latest campaign slogan, bringing Israeli society "back to life", may be his best chance at keeping his political career alive.
The Likud campaign has made two consistent promises - a government it leads will prioritize economic recovery from the pandemic and that it will expand the circle of peace treaties already signed with four Arab nations over the past year to include as many as four additional countries. The vexed Palestinian issue has been largely out of political discourse.
The prime minister is fighting charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies the accusations against him, which he says are politically motivated. A sixth term for Israel's longest-serving Prime Minister could protect him from an ongoing corruption trial.
Opinion polls have consistently predicted the Prime Minister's ruling Likud party gaining the most seats and an overwhelming majority for the right-wing bloc, which was also seen in the previous elections, but he failed to bring them all together under his leadership.
The number of parties and right-wing leaders opposing his continuance as prime minister has only grown with his main rival in the Likud party, Gideon Saar, breaking away to form a separate party with the declared intent to unseat Netanyahu.
Opinion polls suggest as many as thirteen parties could cross the electoral threshold and secure representation in the 120-seat Knesset.
A party needs to win 61 seats to be able to form a government without the support of other parties. If no bloc can achieve a workable majority, a fifth round of elections could be called.
Netanyahu's party has stood by him despite defections insisting on forming a government only under his leadership. The two ultra-orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, have pledged their allegiance to him. Netanyahu has been in power continuously since 2009, having served an earlier three-year term in the late 1990s.