JERUSALEM — For the fourth time in less than two years, Israelis voted Tuesday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to maintain his grip on power after a record-breaking 12 consecutive years in office.
Indicted over alleged bribery and fraud, he has refused to resign, polarizing the country between diehard supporters and enraged opponents, and sparking a political gridlock that has led Israel to hold elections more frequently than any other major democracy.
Netanyahu no longer has former President Donald Trump's policy gifts and preelection boosts. Instead, a world-leading COVID-19 vaccination drive and a quick reopening of the economy ahead of this weekend's Passover holiday has brought Netanyahu a surge of admiration that he hopes will carry him to victory.
"We went from slavery to freedom," retired postal worker and Netanyahu voter Herzel Guetta said while vacationing in Jerusalem after a long period of lockdowns, borrowing a phrase from the Passover story of the biblical exodus from Egypt. "He really cared."
Even Israelis who want to unseat him give Bibi, Netanyahu's popular nickname, credit for convincing Pfizer to choose Israel to host an early vaccine rollout, vaccinating more Israelis per capita than any other country.
"He came out as a genius with corona. He opened up the economy with concerts. He proved himself with vaccines, one of the highest vaccination rates in the world," said Shani Segalovich, 20, eating lunch in a Jerusalem market. "I want change, but I have a feeling Bibi will win."
Polls predicted a tight race, with Netanyahu having a slight advantage over his rivals to form a hard-right government of Jewish religious parties, far-right ultranationalist and anti-LGBTQ factions.
Such a government would favor strengthening Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which the Biden administration and most countries oppose as an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. It could also seek to limit the power of the judiciary, which Netanyahu has alleged is conspiring to oust him through his corruption trial, and could pass laws helping the prime minister evade prosecution.
If Netanyahu does not manage to form a majority coalition of 61 out of 120 lawmakers in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, pollsters warn of yet another stalemate, leading to unprecedented fifth elections. That's because the alternative to a Netanyahu-led government is an ill-fitting collection of malcontents.
They include former right-wing allies of Netanyahu, left, center and Arab parties, all of whom oppose Netanyahu but have little else in common, disagreeing on everything from ideology to who among them should lead.
Netanyahu has gained momentum in part because he has splintered his opposition.
Benny Gantz, the centrist former army chief of staff, posed the most credible challenge to Netanyahu's grip on power in the last three elections, but most of his supporters abandoned him last year when he agreed to join Netanyahu in what was billed as an emergency pandemic-focused government. But Netanyahu preferred new elections rather than uphold an agreement to let Gantz take over as prime minister after 18 months.
Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel – who make up about 20% of the country — voted in record numbers against Netanyahu last year and helped block his path to a right-wing government. But an LGBTQ rights debate and other disagreements within the Arab community shattered the joint coalition of Arab parties, and has helped Netanyahu court some Arab voters.
"I believe his legal situation will force him to lean towards the Arabs, and take the Arab votes, and he will advance projects for the Arabs in Israel," said Naji Amer, a retired doctor in the Arab city of Kufr Qassem, who is voting for the United Arab List, an Islamist party that might be willing to partner with Netanyahu.
What could tip the scales in Netanyahu's favor is the fate of two small parties in the anti-Netanyahu camp, the leftist Meretz and centrist Blue and White, which polled dangerously low and were at risk of not winning enough votes to make it into parliament.
"It's enough that one of them is not going ... to pass the threshold for Netanyahu to be able then to have a majority government," Israeli pollster Camil Fuchs said.
Election officials also warn there could be attempts to delegitimize the results of the vote. Netanyahu's son Yair, a fierce ally of his father's who has promoted false conspiracy theories online, has questioned the impartiality of a member of Israel's elections commission and claimed the committee "stole" a recent vote.
Israel does not allow mail-in ballots or absentee voting, but in this election, it permitted ballot boxes to be set up in retirement homes for older people so they were not exposed to crowds at polling stations. Israel also set up free shuttle service to designated polling places for COVID-19 patients and quarantined Israelis. There were even drive-through polls.
Those votes are sent to the main elections committee headquarters in Jerusalem to be counted, which officials expected to slow down the final tally. The committee said it expected to finish counting only by Friday afternoon, just before the government shuts down for the Jewish Sabbath and Passover holiday.
No one party is expected to win a majority of seats in the Knesset. Instead, Israel's president must choose a candidate to negotiate with other parties to form a majority coalition.
Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and blockaded Gaza Strip do not have voting rights in Israel, but they have noted Netanyahu's campaign vows to legalize retroactively unauthorized Israeli settlement outposts, more than 100 of which dot the hills of the West Bank, where Palestinians want independence.
"Although we consider these elections an internal affair, all their electoral campaigns were at the expense of our land and our people, and the parties are competing for more land and more settlements," Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said in a statement. "We condemn these frenzied campaigns against our land, our sanctities and our people, and we demand that the world act to stop all these procedures."
A printing house in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, whose workers are mostly Palestinian noncitizens, printed ballots for the election.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's Election Day in Israel, which is the fourth time we're saying that in two years. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's longest serving prime minister, keeps fighting for his job. Although, he is also on trial facing corruption charges. Now he's campaigning on the success of Israel's fast vaccine rollout. NPR's Daniel Estrin went out to the polls today. He's covering this election as he's covered several before. Daniel, good morning.
DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Or I guess I should say good afternoon in your time zone. Why does Israel keep holding elections?
ESTRIN: It's because the country is paralyzed. Netanyahu, as you said, is on trial for corruption. He's no longer able to convince a majority of lawmakers to join him in a coalition. And then, on the other hand, the opposition has not been strong enough to unseat him. The system here does not force a winner. So here, that's where we are. Netanyahu's party is expected to win the most seats in parliament. But that's not enough for him to have a majority there. There are a lot of parties running in this election. So you have to form a coalition with other parties to have a majority. And the country is stuck. You got Netanyahu's diehard supporters on one hand and those who can't stand him after so many years in power on the other hand.
INSKEEP: Netanyahu does seem to unify a lot of elements of the right wing behind his leadership. Is the opposition unified?
ESTRIN: It is not. And that is why it's going to be so hard to see the opposition beating Netanyahu in this election. There are a bunch of opposition parties on the left, centrists, Arabs, some right-wing parties even, former allies of Netanyahu. They all want to beat Netanyahu. But they don't really have much else in common. They don't agree on ideology. They don't agree on who should be the prime minister.
INSKEEP: So what are you hearing when you go around to polling places?
ESTRIN: I'm hearing a lot of weariness. Even if it's people who support Netanyahu, who do not, they are voting a fourth time in just under two years. And they're weary. But a lot of voters feel - and the polls reflect this - that Netanyahu has the momentum this time. And what could make the difference is the vaccine. Netanyahu convinced Pfizer to have Israel be the place for an early vaccine rollout. Israel's had more per capita vaccinations than anyone else in the world. And the economy has reopened just a couple of weeks ago. So let's listen to some voters. Dov Rosenthal Young (ph), vaccinated. He supports Netanyahu.
DOV ROSENTHAL YOUNG: I'm really proud with Netanyahu. He did a great job. Our economy, it's the first place in the world that we come back. And it's really important that we have, like, the vaccines and everything.
ESTRIN: And then, Yael Drori (ph), she doesn't support Benjamin Netanyahu. He - she calls him by his nickname, Bibi. Let's listen.
YAEL DRORI: Deep in my stomach, I feel that Bibi will win again, whereas his opponents are not as experienced. They don't have all the tricks.
ESTRIN: And the trick that Netanyahu pulled this time, she says, is that instead of antagonizing Palestinian Arab citizens and voters, this time, he actually campaigned in Arabic. And he courted their vote. And that could help him.
INSKEEP: And I guess the very fact of the widespread vaccination explains why you were able to find people at polling stations rather than - I don't know - mailing it in or something like they would in the U.S.
ESTRIN: That's right. There actually isn't voting - mail-in voting here. But Israel has set up free shuttle service for COVID-19 patients to get to designated polling places. All of those votes, it will take a long time to count them. So we might not have a real tally and a sense of who won until, maybe, the end of this week.
INSKEEP: Daniel, thanks for the update.
ESTRIN: You're welcome, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin on Israel's latest election.
(SOUNDBITE OF AVISHAI COHEN'S "MEDITERRANEAN SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.