by Keren Setton
JERUSALEM, March 23 (Xinhua) -- Israel's fourth election within two years ended Tuesday with results that may not extricate the country from a lengthy political crisis, according to exit polls of local media outlets.
Throughout the day, voter turnout appeared to be lower than the previous round by about 5 percent. Due to a huge number of absentee ballots as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic, however, the final voter turnout could change.
Special polling stations were set up for those sick or in quarantine. Tallying up all these votes could delay the official results by a few days. The nature of the tight race means any seemingly minor change in the final count could dramatically tip the balance for either side.
There is no clear winner at the end of the campaign. While the Likud party led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be the largest, the bloc opposing Netanyahu has the same number of seats in parliament.
And the apparent kingmaker is Naftali Bennett, leader of the nationalist right-wing Yamina party. With seven to eight seats, Bennett has not ruled out sitting with Netanyahu in a coalition, although he has campaigned in recent weeks to replace him.
With Bennett's support, Netanyahu could form a government based on his allies in the ultra-nationalist right wing and religious parties.
Bennett has sat with Netanyahu in previous governments, but the two have a strained relationship. A former ally, Bennett shares some of Netanyahu's views on national security, but has been highly critical of his handling of the COVID-19 crisis. He has also accused him of being soft on some enemies of Israel in the region.
"Bennet will enter the government, he has no other alternative," said Roni Rimon, owner of a Tel Aviv-based public relations firm and a senior strategic adviser. "His political base is right-wing, and he will not want to position himself as the one who will prevent the right-wing from ruling the country."
Netanyahu has focused his campaign largely on his handling of COVID-19 and the extrication of Israel from it. A few months after he successfully orchestrated a mass-vaccination campaign, Israel has largely returned to pre-pandemic life.
"The exit polls show the Israeli public giving Netanyahu a badge of approval," said Yonatan Freeman of the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "He seemingly brought peace in terms of the medical emergency in Israel but also peace when it comes to Israel's relations with the Arab and Muslim world."
Last year, Israel signed accords with four Arab countries after decades of no move towards such direction. The agreements have been welcome by all sides of Israel's political map.
If Netanyahu or any of his opponents fails to secure a parliamentary majority, Israel will head to an unprecedented fifth election.
It, however, appears that there are no candidates to replace Israel's longest serving prime minister. Aside from the common agenda to replace Netanyahu, his opposition is too splintered and will have a difficult time finding common ideology to bind them together.
"Netanyahu has the edge in forming the new government, and we see parties that are very fragmented," Freeman told Xinhua. "The population really sees him as the capable in terms of leadership, and those who ran against Netanyahu are newcomers to the race, and his projection of leadership gives him an edge."
One main issue for Netanyahu's opponents is the prime minister's ongoing corruption trial. Many believe that a prime minister charged with fraud, breach of trust and acceptance of bribes should not be allowed to rule while on trial, although Israeli law allows it.
Campaigning against his morals, his adversaries said he has orchestrated the lengthy political crisis in an attempt to form a friendlier coalition which will help him get immunity from trial.
"If Bennett joins his coalition, Netanyahu is closer than ever to a narrow government including the most extreme elements of Israeli society," said a Tuesday statement by Yohanan Plesner, president of the independent Israeli Democracy Institute. "This coalition could back Netanyahu's attempts to find a political solution to his legal troubles."
If Netanyahu does form a government, it could be one of the most nationalist, right-wing governments ever to be sworn in in the country. However, in the past Netanyahu has proven to be a pragmatist rather than a staunch ideologist, especially on national security issues.
"It will be a right-wing government by declaration," Rimon told Xinhua, "But practically, it will be a government that will have to make compromises because that is just how politics work." Enditem