By Emily Rose
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis voted for the fifth time in under four years on Tuesday, with former premier Benjamin Netanyahu bidding for a comeback in a race likely to turn on the showing of a far-right party that has grown from fringe group to potential kingmaker.
After years of deadlock, voter exasperation with political parties has been growing but surging support for the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism bloc has galvanized the campaign for both supporters and opponents of the group’s firebrand co-leader, Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Election officials said turnout was 47.5% by 4 p.m, the highest at this stage in 23 years. It remains unclear how this early robust voter participation will impact results.
Israel’s longest-serving premier, Netanyahu is on trial on corruption charges, which he denies, but his rightist Likud party is still expected to finish as the largest in parliament.
“It’s him or nothing,” a voter who gave his name as Tomer told Reuters outside a polling station in the coastal city of Bat Yam, where copies of Netanyahu’s new autobiography were on sale.
However, the final opinion polls from last week showed the right still short of the 61 seats needed for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset, opening the prospect of prolonged coalition wrangling and new elections.
“There’s a feeling of despair at all these elections,” said Hagit Cohen, a 46-year-old social worker from Tel Aviv who said she was voting for outgoing centrist Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
Security on the streets and surging prices have topped the list of voter concerns in a campaign triggered by defections from the unlikely ruling coalition of right-wing, centrist and Arab parties formed after the last election.
The campaign, which opened weeks after a brief conflict with the militant Islamic Jihad group in Gaza in August, has also unrolled against a backdrop of increasing violence in the occupied West Bank, with near-daily raids and clashes.
“We need security in this country,” said Meir Banai, a 23-year-old Ben-Gvir voter from Bat Yam.
“FINISH THE DAY WITH A SMILE”
However the conflict has had little direct impact on the campaign, which has been overshadowed by the outsized personality of Netanyahu, whose legal battles have fed the stalemate blocking Israel’s political system since he was indicted on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges in 2019.
Casting his ballot in Jerusalem, Netanyahu, after warning supporters about potentially high turnout for his opponents, said: “I told you I was a little bit worried but God willing…we will finish the day with a smile.”
Ben-Gvir and fellow far-right leader Bezalel Smotrich have eaten into Likud’s traditional hawkish base and the once-marginal Religious Zionism is now set to be the third-largest party in parliament.
Ben-Gvir – a former member of Kach, a group on Israeli and U.S. terrorist watchlists – has moderated some earlier positions, but the prospect of his joining a coalition risks alarming Washington.
“If Ben-Gvir gets in it will be a disaster,” said Jaffa resident Amin Kurdi.
After casting his vote in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, Ben-Gvir boarded a helicopter from the southern city of Sderot to coastal Netanya, where he said Defence Minister Benny Gantz was campaigning hard in central Israel.
“We’re flying to Netanya now to say it’s either a government with Gantz or a full-on right-wing government”.
Lapid has campaigned on diplomatic advances with countries including Turkey and Lebanon as well as on a strong performance by the Israeli economy recovering from the pandemic.
Flanked by supporters outside a Tel Aviv polling centre, Lapid said: “This election is between the future and the past”.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie, Dan Williams, Rami Ayyub, Emily Rose and Henriette Chacar; Editing by Andrew Heavens, William Maclean, Hugh Lawson and Nick Macfie)