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Bibi again? Israelis vote as country emerges from pandemic restrictions

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By Euronews with AP
People pass an election campaign billboard for the Likud party that shows a portrait of its leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Ramat Gan, Israel, , March 21, 2021
People pass an election campaign billboard for the Likud party that shows a portrait of its leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Ramat Gan, Israel, , March 21, 2021   -   Copyright  Oded Balilty/Associated Press
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Israelis head to the polls on Tuesday in their fourth parliamentary election in just two years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been in the job for the past 12 years, hopes voters will reward him for leading a successful vaccine campaign and establishing diplomatic relations with Arab countries.

Netanyahu, who faces an ongoing corruption trial, also bets on a friendlier parliament to grant him immunity or freeze proceedings.

His challengers have slammed his earlier mismanagement of the pandemic, his reliance on divisive religious and ultra-nationalist allies and his legal foes.

Opinion polls predict a very tight race, raising the possibility of continued deadlock and even a fifth consecutive election.

Netanyahu's Likud is again poised to emerge as the largest individual party.

But neither Netanyahu and his allies nor the anti-Netanyahu bloc, led by centrist Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party, are expected to capture a 61-seat majority on their own.

This means political alliances must be formed to create a governing coalition.

Here is a look at the key factors that could determine whether Netanyahu will keep his job.

Vaccines

Netanyahu's number one argument for re-election is Israel's successful vaccination campaign.

The Prime Minister moved quickly and aggressively to secure enough vaccines for Israel's 9.3 million people, personally lobbying the CEOs of Pfizer and Moderna.

In just three months, the country has inoculated some 80% of its adult population and became the world leader in vaccinations per capita.

As infection rates plunged, the country has reopened schools, restaurants, museums and the main airport just in time for election day.

Opponents recall that a series of lockdowns hit the economy hard, with thousands of businesses bankrupt and unemployment still in double digits.

Many also have bitter memories of Netanyahu's ultra-Orthodox allies breaking lockdown rules, soaring the country's COVID-19 death toll.

Turnout

According to opinion polls, an estimated 15% of voters remain undecided. Tuesday's election will hinge not only on who these voters pick but whether they show up at all.

Pollsters expect turnout to be lower than the 71% of the most recent election last year, both because of fears of coronavirus infections and general voter fatigue.

Israel is providing special facilities, including separate booths and mobile ballot stations, to allow people who are sick or in quarantine to vote.

Beyond overall turnout, participation in key sectors will be determining.

Netanyahu's religious and nationalist allies tend to have highly motivated voters.

On the other hand, Arab voters, disappointed with the disintegration of the umbrella "Joint List'' party, are expected to abstain in larger numbers this time around.

Voters in the more liberal and secular areas around Tel Aviv also tend to have lower turnout.

Netanyahu could benefit if these trends materialise.

Small parties as king-makers

A few small parties may have a determining role in shaping the outcome of this election.

In order to enter the Knesset, a party must get at least 3.25% of the vote, giving them a minimum of four seats in the 120-seat parliament.

Four small parties are hovering near the threshold, according to pollsters.

The Religious Zionist party, a small pro-Netanyahu faction that includes openly racist and homophobic candidates, appears to be gaining strength.

If one of the anti-Netanyahu parties fails to get in, a strong showing by the Religious Zionists could help nudge Netanyahu over the line.

In this tight electoral race, former Netanyahu aide Naftali Bennett could also emerge as a king-maker in coalition building.

Bennett's Yemina party supports the same right-wing ideology as Likud. But the two men have a notoriously strained relationship, and Bennett has refused to commit to either side.

If offered the chance to be prime minister, Bennett could side with Netanyahu's opponents. Some polls have forecast both sides falling short of a coalition even with Bennett's support.

That could create the unlikely scenario of a small Islamic party led by Arab lawmaker Mansour Abbas as kingmaker -- or simply forcing a fifth election.

Foreign policy and the peace process

In previous elections, Netanyahu carefully staged his close alliance with then-President Donald Trump, posting massive billboards showing the men together.

But relations with Washington have been cooler under the Biden administration. Netanyahu has barely mentioned the new US president in the campaign.

Likewise, there has been almost no mention of the Palestinians, reflecting the years-long freeze in the peace process.

But Biden has indicated he will soon re-engage with the Palestinians. That could make it difficult for the next Israeli leader to ignore the issue.