'Vaccination Nation' or 'Crime Minister'? Israelis vote on Netanyahu in new election

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed victory over COVID-19 by making Israel a “vaccination nation”. Even that may not be enough when voters wearing mandatory masks cast their ballots in an election on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein attend the arrival of a plane with a shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines, at Ben Gurion airport, near the city of Lod, Israel, January 10, 2021. Motti Millrod/Pool via REUTERS

Netanyahu, who turned Israel’s world-leading rollout of vaccines into a showcase of his campaign in the country’s fourth national poll in two years, gave a measured assessment of his chances after the latest opinion polls pointed to a close race.

“I’m still missing a (parliamentary) seat or two to achieve a stable government,” he said on Army Radio on Sunday, in what could have been a strategic bid to rally supporters of his right-wing Likud party to turn out to vote.

Opinion polls showed an uptick for Likud in the campaign’s home stretch, giving a Netanyahu-led coalition of conservative and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties around 60 seats, still short of a majority in the 120-member parliament.

But the surveys indicated that a potential, though perhaps unlikely alliance of left-wing, centre and rightist factions, possibly led by Netanyahu’s strongest rival in the polls - centrist Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party - is also near 60.

No one party has ever won a parliamentary majority on its own in an election in politically polarised Israel. Election night results may only be a starting point, with backroom coalition talks determining whether “King Bibi” will still rule.

Gone this time were Netanyahu’s giant billboards featuring a handshake with ally Donald Trump, defeated in the U.S. presidential election in November.

And with Democrat Joe Biden in the White House, there was little prospect of U.S. diplomatic moves that could help Netanyahu’s election chances.

Israel’s longest-serving leader - on trial for alleged corruption which he denies - focused instead on highlighting his role in turning high-tech Israel into what he dubbed a “vaccination nation”.

About half of the population has been inoculated at a pace that drew international praise for Netanyahu but also calls for Israel to do more to ensure Palestinians in territories it occupies receive vaccines.

“We are the world champions in handling the coronavirus ... I have brought millions of vaccine doses and will bring millions more,” Netanyahu said on the stump, pacing the stage in multiple campaign rallies as election day neared.

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Political opponents say he mishandled the pandemic from the start, pointing to the need for three national lockdowns and accusing him of turning a blind eye to violators within the ultra-Orthodox community that provides a power base for his key coalition partners.

“Netanyahu’s decision to focus on his campaign on the vaccinations was a brilliant one,” Daphna Liel, political correspondent for Israel’s Channel 12 TV news, told Reuters.

Liel noted that a few weeks ago, opinion polls showed 60% of the public was dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. “Now we see, a few days before the election, that only 40% think he failed.”


For Netanyahu, public praise from Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer, Israel’s main vaccine supplier, was campaign gold. The prime minister, Bourla told Israel’s Channel 12 TV, phoned him 30 times to secure a supply deal.

“Just like I was obsessive about the vaccines, I’ll be obsessive about our economy,” Netanyahu said on Army Radio, promising more cash stipends for all Israelis and ailing businesses.

But after three inconclusive elections, voters have had plenty of time to make up their minds about Netanyahu, 71, in a ballot being held almost a quarter of a century to the day after he won his first term as prime minister.

“What Netanyahu did in terms of getting the vaccines for Israel is really great,” David Wolfowicz, 29, a media researcher, said in a Jerusalem cafe.

But he added: “I’m still not going to vote for him. There are still enough reasons to vote for one of the opposing parties.”

Netanyahu has managed to stay at the helm despite weekly street protests where placards dub him “crime minister” over alleged graft.

His trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust is scheduled to gain pace after the ballot, which follows elections in April and September 2019 and last March.

This time, much could depend on potential kingmaker Naftali Bennett, who heads the ultranationalist Yamina party and once served as Netanyahu’s defence minister.

Without Bennett’s backing, neither a Netanyahu-led coalition nor an anti-Netanyahu alliance would have enough seats in parliament for a governing majority, polls showed.

Editing by Mike Collett-White