Israelis are heading to the polls today to elect the 20th Knesset, the country’s parliament, and quite possible a new Prime Minister. Benjamin Netanyahu is in a tight election to retain the premiership. In seeking a fourth term as Prime Minister, he has has faced an unexpectedly tough challenge from the center-left Zionist Union alliance, headed by Issac Herzog.
While concerns over the a future Palestinian state as well as over Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been front and center, domestic issues have been on the minds of the electorate. The cost of living and high taxes have emerged as key points of contention among voters, issues that Netanyahu largely ignored.
Polls in Israel opened this morning at 7 am local time and are due to close at 10 pm. At 4pm local time, voter turnout stood at 45.4 percent. The turnout was up to 54.6 percent at 6pm.
Opinion polls in the run up to the election showed that the Zionist Union alliance held a slight lead of 3 to 4 seats over Netanyahu’s Likud party. No party has ever won an outright majority in parliamentary elections. In this case regardless of which party wins the most seats, it will be necessary for the winner to try to form a coalition. It is possible, as in 2009, that Netanyahu’s party could lose the elections but form a coalition should Herzog’s party be unable to do so. This is a likely scenario that could see Netanyahu retain his position. But despite this scenario, Netanyahu is in the fight for his political life.
Elections results are due later this evening but it could take several weeks for Israelis and the world to know who will be leading the country.
This election is not just significant to Israelis but also to the United States and for the greater region.
Relations between the United States and Israel have reached a new-low under President Obama and Netanyahu, chiefly over differing opinions on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Washington is locked in high-stakes negotiations with Tehran to try to reach an agreements over Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions. Netanyahu has slammed the negotiates and went to Congress earlier this month to make his case, a visit that was arranged not by the White House but rather the Speaker of the House. The visit angered Washington who viewed it as inappropriate given the upcoming elections.
Additionally, prospects for a two-state solution have dwindled in the past year. In a last-minute attempt to appeal to voters, Netanyahu said there would not be a Palestinian state should he win a fourth term. This is a repudiation of a speech he made in 2009 backing a two-state solution.
Israel and Hamas fought another war last summer in Gaza, which left over 2,000 Palestinians and over 60 Israelis killed. Netanyahu said if he lost the election, ‘Hamastan B’ would be established in Jerusalem.
Turnout is expected to be high as Israelis head to the polls to decide their future. Beyond security issues and the economy, the election is expected to be a referendum on Netanyahu himself. With his future uncertain, the Prime Minister’s opponents are fighting hard to remove the veteran politician from his post.