Netanyahu tries to inoculate himself against defeat as Israel's voters head to polls in pandemic

As Israel holds its fourth election in two years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who leads the right-wing Likud party, is currently on trial in three separate cases involving fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. He's hoping that the country's vaccination program will bring him victory on Tuesday.

Likud leader, on trial for corruption, is banking on successful vaccination program

A supporter holds up a Likud party election campaign poster depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with a slogan in Hebrew that reads, 'Many Politicians, One Leader,' at Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on Friday. Voters head to the polls on Tuesday. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Elbow to elbow in Jerusalem's old market, they pick through strawberries and Jaffa oranges. Diners jam Tel Aviv's sunny seaside restaurants and partygoers without face masks fill its nightspots. Across Israel, fans have returned to cheer on soccer teams in newly reopened stadiums — up to 5,000 spectators at a time.

Israel is "back to life," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared at a campaign stop this month. "We're coming out of it, and there's not much more," he said.

Netanyahu has fought to bring an air of post-pandemic normalcy to Israel in time for the country's fourth trip to the polls in two years. Chief among his government's promises is a vow that after multiple national lockdowns due to COVID-19, there won't be any more.

He's taking credit for a vaccination program that has led the world — already fully inoculating about half the Israeli population and triggering a sharp drop in infections — hoping that the country's win over the novel coronavirus will bring him victory on Tuesday.

But Israel's vaccine rollout hasn't been without controversy. Some Palestinians have argued that Israel neglected its obligations as an occupying power by not including them in the mass vaccination program.

The prime minister personally negotiated a deal to deliver millions of doses of the vaccine in a series of phone calls that Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla called "obsessive".

"Netanyahu's done a lot," Gaby Nissanov told a freelance CBC News crew as he waited for his turn at a vaccination centre in Jerusalem on Thursday. "He deserves credit for this."

Still, it might not be enough to keep Israel's longest-serving prime minister in power — or out of jail — after 12 years.

WATCH | Challenges and success of Israel's vaccine rollout:

The challenges, criticisms and success of Israel’s record-setting vaccine rollout

2 years ago
Duration 6:06
Israel is leading the world with its COVID-19 vaccine rollout and it’s already seeing results, but the campaign has been met with some hesitant demographics and criticism for not vaccinating Palestinians.

Election a matter of political, legal survival

Netanyahu is currently on trial in three separate cases involving fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. This election is as much about his effort to avoid prison as it is about his political survival, say his critics, who expect Netanyahu to try to pass legislation giving himself immunity if he stays on as prime minister.

And it's been emotional. On Saturday, tens of thousands of Israelis protested against Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, the largest of 39 weekly demonstrations denouncing political corruption.

Protesters in Jerusalem take part on Saturday in a weekly demonstration against Netanyahu's alleged corruption and his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, ahead of Tuesday's general election. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

The last spate of opinion polls suggests Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party is in the lead but is currently expected to win only about half the 61 seats required for a majority in Israel's parliament, the Knesset. Even counting likely coalition partners, his conservative and religious bloc may be just short of the support it needs to govern — an inconclusive result, as in the previous three elections.

It's not that Israelis don't appreciate the "amazing" vaccination effort, said shopper Clil Levin, "but we need a change" from Netanyahu. She hasn't decided who will get her vote, but it will be "someone new," she said.

"As a democracy ... it's essential for us to be switching the system and the characters," said Dean Graubard, a student drinking coffee in the cobblestone lanes of the Jerusalem market.

Indeed, the election has become a polarized referendum on Netanyahu's continued leadership, his character and his policies supporting ultra-religious groups and settlers, says political and public opinion analyst Dahlia Scheindlin.

An Israeli woman receives a shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a medical centre in Dimona, southern Israel, in February. About half of the Israeli population has been inoculated, bringing a sharp drop in infections. (Tsafrir Abayov/The Associated Press)

The vaccination issue is having only a marginal impact on voters' views, she told CBC News in a Skype interview from Tel Aviv.

"What it really does is make people who were already voting for Netanyahu feel more strongly about it and those who were already voting against him feel more passionately about it," said Scheindlin, a fellow at the U.S.-based Century Foundation.

Netanyahu courting Arab voters

There are three other main candidates campaigning to replace him, though Israel's fragmented proportional representation system depends as much on post-election wheeling and dealing among more than a dozen parties as it does on voter desires.

Netanyahu — nicknamed "Lord of Pulling Strings" by critics — has proven a wizard at managing the system, co-opting some of his most dangerous rivals while playing others off against each other to ensure his own political survival. Still, it hasn't taken long for his last three coalition governments to tumble from gridlock and instability.

The strongest opposition party is Yesh Atid, led by former TV anchorman Yair Lapid. It represents much of Israel's large secular centre and includes some social activists of the left who feel they have few other options. But so far, the party has failed to find enough allies in the Knesset to take power.

Former TV anchorman Yair Lapid, shown in May 2020, leads Yesh Atid, the strongest opposition party in Israel. It represents much of Israel's large secular centre and includes some social activists of the left who feel they have few other options. (Oded Balilty/The Associated Press)

In this campaign, Lapid has warned against Netanyahu's "illiberal" impulses. If he wins again, Lapid said in an interview with the Times of Israel, the country is in danger of becoming more authoritarian: "Not a dictatorship [but] an in-between, a hybrid, anywhere between Hungary and Turkey."

Two other potential leaders are on Netanyahu's political right: Naftali Bennett of the Yamina party, supported by religious Zionists who don't accept a Palestinian state, and Gideon Sa'ar, Netanyahu's former interior minister who split off from Likud to form his own business-oriented party, New Hope.

Israeli Arabs have never had a place in Knesset coalitions, but this time these voters have become an unlikely target for Netanyahu. In the 2015 election, he outraged many Arabs in a now-infamous campaign video by warning Likud supporters that "the Arabs are voting in droves" and that he needed Jewish Israeli votes to protect the Israeli state.

Palestinians hold a protest against Netanyahu's visit to the heritage site of ancient Susya as Israeli soldiers stand guard in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on March 14. (Mussa Qawasma/Reuters)

Now, Netanyahu is seen touring Palestinian villages in Israel, urging Arab citizens to vote for him. In Nazareth in January, he was greeted by demonstrations and denunciations from Arab members of the Knesset. "Netanyahu came like a thief to try to scrape together votes from the Arab street," said Aida Touma-Suleiman.

But he has managed to attract prominent supporters, such as the mayor of Nazareth, and the Islamist party United Arab List says it's open to co-operating with Likud in the Knesset.

'The master of doing the unexpected'

Whether that actually happens or not, Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says Netanyahu's "dramatic" overtures to a group his Likud supporters have frequently vilified — and even centrist parties have avoided — may now open the door to greater political participation for Israeli Arabs.

"That means he gave legitimacy to all the other players on the political scene to actually say, 'Yes, it might be a viable option to have a government with support of the Arab parties,'" she said at a forum organized for foreign media.

It's also the kind of political surprise Netanyahu is known for pulling on voters, the media and his opponents. He almost threw in another twist in the dying days of the campaign — an unprecedented official visit to an Arab state.

Netanyahu, who likes to showcase his connections to foreign leaders like Donald Trump when he was U.S. president or Russia's Vladimir Putin, planned to jet to Abu Dhabi for high-profile talks with Emirati leaders.

Netanyahu, right, and then-U.S. president Donald Trump arrive to deliver joint remarks on a Middle East peace plan proposal at the White House in Washington, D.C., in January 2020. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

It was to be the first visit to the United Arab Emirates since Israel and the Gulf state established official ties last year. That is, until the itinerary was leaked to Israeli media, and officials in Abu Dhabi balked at being drawn into Netanyahu's campaign. They had expected low-key talks instead.

"The UAE will not be a part in any internal electioneering in Israel, now or ever," tweeted Anwar Gargash, an adviser to the country's president, in a stinging official rebuke that also saw other meetings cancelled and cold water thrown on a $10 billion US investment fund to be established between the two countries.

"Netanyahu is the master of doing the unexpected, and he is not shy about it," said analyst Scheindlin. "It shows an incredible level of confidence on his part, which is well earned."

It's not at all impossible that there could be more surprises in the dying hours of this campaign — or indeed after, once the haggling for coalition support is likely to begin.


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.