Netanyahu eyes vaccine victory as Israel heads for fourth vote
Israel this month will hold its fourth election in under two years, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoping goodwill from a world-beating coronavirus vaccination campaign can finally secure him an elusive majority government.
When Israelis last went to the polls a year ago, they delivered a result that had become familiar: neither the right-wing Netanyahu nor his centrist challenger Benny Gantz had enough support to form the necessary 61-seat parliamentary majority.
The world, and Israeli politics, have been upended since then.
Just weeks after the last election, Israel entered the first of three coronavirus lockdowns.
In May, Netanyahu and Gantz formed a unity government, declaring that the unprecedented health and economic threats from the pandemic required political stability.
Their coalition, which had been set to last three years, collapsed in December when Netanyahu's refusal to approve a 2021 budget forced new elections, to be held March 23.
Netanyahu, Gantz, other political leaders and voters have all expressed frustration with the seemingly endless cycle of campaigns that have mired the Jewish state in grinding political gridlock.
But Netanyahu, a wily political veteran with a long record of out-manoeuvring his rivals, is hoping he can sneak over the line this time thanks to the inoculation drive.
The 71-year-old, Israel's longest serving premier, has also clinched historic normalisation deals with four Arab states.
He claims the agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan mark a new era in the Middle East and silence those who insisted Israel's Arab world ties would not improve until the Palestinian conflict was resolved.
But despite Netanyahu's apparent successes, polls point to another indecisive result, with the premier lacking a clear path to form a government.
- 'Vaccine nation' -
Israel, a country of about nine million people, has given the two recommended jabs of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine to around four million residents.
That pace, widely described as the world's fastest per capita, is the envy of many nations, including wealthy ones still struggling with vaccine procurement.
"Do you know how many presidents and prime ministers call Pfizer and Moderna? They don't answer. But when it's me, they take the call," Netanyahu said this week, referring to drug-makers with approved vaccines.
"I convinced them that Israel would be a model country to roll out the vaccine: who else will do that? Definitely not (Yair) Lapid, (Naftali) Bennett and Gideon (Saar)," he proclaimed, referring to his main election challengers.
Israel secured a large vaccine stock from Pfizer because its highly digitised medical system enabled it to offer the company fast, precious data on the product's impact, in what medical experts have called the largest-ever human clinical trial.
Seeking credit, Netanyahu has repeatedly visited vaccination centres and adopted the phrase "Vaccine Nation", a play on the "Start-up Nation" tag Israel acquired because of its burgeoning high-tech sector.
But some voters also blame Netanyahu for the protracted, economically painful lockdowns.
His political allies, ultra-Orthodox Jews, have flouted restrictions -- often with a muted police response -- fuelling transmission while many others were following the rules.
- Left-right divide 'eviscerated' -
As the vaccine edges Israel out of the pandemic, its political landscape is shifting.
Gantz was punished by his supporters for entering a Netanyahu-led government and his fractured Blue and White party may not get enough votes to qualify for a presence in parliament.
His former Blue and White partner, Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, has emerged as Netanyahu's main challenger, multiple polls show.
And a former prominent member of Netanyahu's Likud, Gideon Saar, has formed his own party to challenge the premier and may peel away some Likud supporters.
But, for all that has changed since the last election, a single question has again dominated this year's campaign: are you for Netanyahu or against him?
"This latest round of elections has almost completely eviscerated the left-right ideological divide," the head of the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank, Yohanan Plesner, told AFP.
The electorate is "divided between those who want Netanyahu to continue to another term in office and those who hope to see him finally head home after 12 straight years (in power)".
© 2021 AFP