An Israeli Bedouin casts his ballot yesterday in the Bedouin town of Rahat on the fourth national election in two years. - AFP

JERUSALEM: Israelis were voting yesterday in their fourth election in less than two years, with the nation deeply split on whether veteran Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should remain in power. Election workers in full COVID protective gear staffed polling stations for voters currently in quarantine-but thanks to a world-leading vaccination effort most citizens wore only face masks.

Netanyahu, 71, is Israel's longest-serving premier and its most popular politician, but his inability to unite a stable governing majority behind him has mired the country in unprecedented political gridlock. He hopes to be rewarded by voters for the campaign that has inoculated half of Israel's roughly nine million people against the coronavirus, a pace envied by much of the world, and for striking historic diplomatic normalization deals with several Arab states.

But while his right-wing Likud party appears set to win the most seats, Netanyahu will need coalition partners to secure a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. That means Israel is looking at three possible outcomes: another coalition under Netanyahu who has been in power for 12 straight years, an ideologically divided government united only by its opposition to him, or a looming fifth election.

As he cast his ballot in Jerusalem, Netanyahu voiced hope for an end to the gridlock, saying: "I hope this is the last election." Elsewhere, a polling booth worker, retired 65-year-old engineer Efraim Achtarzad, wearing a blue grown and plastic face shield, told AFP that the repeated elections were "a catastrophe". "We are burning money and nothing changes," he said.

Corruption trial

Netanyahu is on trial over corruption charges-allegations he denies, but which have helped fuel a protest movement with weekly rallies outside his Jerusalem residence. The premier has said he will not block the trial and is looking forward to being exonerated, but critics suspect that if he wins a majority, he may seek parliamentary action to delay or end the process.

To form a government, Netanyahu would have to strike deals with small factions that control a handful of seats, possibly including a new extremist, far-right alliance called Religious Zionism. If Religious Zionism crosses the 3.25 percent support threshold, as polls predict, it will send to parliament Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has voiced admiration for the mass-murderer of 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron in 1994, Baruch Goldstein.

Even top Likud member and energy minister Yuval Steinitz said it would be improper to sit with Ben-Gvir. Netanyahu's main challenger is former television personality Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, which is expected to finish second behind Likud.

"There are only two options: a large Yesh Atid or a government of darkness, racism and homophobia," Lapid said after voting in Tel Aviv. Leading political columnist Nahum Barnea of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper wrote that an alliance between Netanyahu and extremists could produce radical religious policies and an even harsher line towards the Palestinians.

The extremists "have an agenda. They, not Netanyahu, will define what right-wing means," Barnea said. Given Israel's right-ward shift since the turn of the century, Lapid has no evident path to power without support from Netanyahu's rivals on the right. That includes Likud defector Gideon Saar, whose New Hope party could win up to 10 seats, and who has ruled out serving under Netanyahu.

Lapid would also likely have to align with an ideological rival, religious nationalist Naftali Bennett. Bennett, a multi-millionaire former tech entrepreneur and one-time Netanyahu protege, has fallen out with the prime minister and hammered him during the campaign, while not ruling out a reunion. -AFP