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Final Hours Before Election Day Pit Netanyahu, Lapid Against Each Other

With just over 24 hours until the polls open, Israel’s parliamentary hopefuls are staging their final push, crisscrossing the nation and sprinting among television studios to persuade every last eligible voter, and leave no stone unturned.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu continued his press blitz, giving interviews to countless radio stations and television channels after months of media silence.

His main message remained the same as it has been over the past two months, ever since elections were called: “It’s a choice between me and Lapid. Who will do a better job pulling this country out of the economic crisis?” Lapid refers to opposition leader Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid party.

Netanyahu is hoping to form his fifth consecutive government, and sixth total, following Tuesday’s election. After a rough year in which his numbers suffered a significant hit due to unpopular pandemic-related decisions, recent polls have shown him rebounding, largely thanks to Israel’s successful coronavirus vaccination effort.

According to the latest surveys, the prime minister, who also is facing criminal charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, is just one seat short of securing a sustainable right-wing coalition.

Unlike the previous three rounds of elections in 2019 and 2020, Netanyahu is not facing a clear heavyweight challenger, but rather an assortment of medium-sized opponents.

His most obvious rival, Lapid, has remained almost entirely quiet over the past two months, preferring to avoid the spotlight and foil Netanyahu’s attempts to paint him as a viable leftist threat and energize his right-wing base.

Yet over the weekend, Lapid broke his silence, first challenging the incumbent to a debate, and then skewering him for refusing the invitation.

“Netanyahu chickened out. He ran away, he’s afraid,” Lapid said Sunday. “He’s been calling me names for weeks, ridiculing me, obsessing over me and, when he finally got the chance to actually debate the issues, he bolted,” he said.

Lapid’s strategy for the final days of the campaign has forced him to walk a political tightrope of sorts, motivating center-left voters to vote for him while ensuring the other parties in his bloc, such as Labor, Meretz and Blue and White, are not totally abandoned and still pass the four-seat threshold needed to enter parliament.

“Without Meretz, Netanyahu has a coalition. It’s that simple,” a Meretz party spokesperson said in a statement to The Media Line, outlining the final campaign message of the three small left-wing parties.

“If voters want a true liberal party that will fight for their values, then strategic voting and other considerations and calculations are pointless,” he said.

Back on the right, Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners and the extreme-right Religious Zionism party have largely been quiet, repeatedly vowing their allegiance to the prime minister and hoping to drive their loyal supporters to the polls on Tuesday.

Between the two camps, and easily the most pivotal players in the race, are Netanyahu’s former close confidants and allies Gideon Saar and Naftali Bennett, both promising to unseat the longest-tenured prime minister in Israeli history.

Saar, who departed Netanyahu’s Likud in December, accused his past friend of fostering a “cult of personality” inside the party, and has vowed not to join a government headed by Netanyahu.

Bennett, meanwhile, also has insisted that Netanyahu “utterly failed” in the pandemic’s handling and “must be replaced,” but has remained more ambiguous, refusing to go as far as ruling out a coalition headed by the current prime minister.

It’s impossible to say what the outcome will be, but a fifth, sixth and seventh round aren’t out of the question

Both men, heading right-wing parties, have at the same time promised not to crown Lapid as prime minister either, making a feasible anti-Netanyahu government a longshot.

Along with the splintered Arab vote, whose voters this cycle will have to choose between two parties after the fateful split in the Joint Arab List, and the smattering of tiny parties just barely crossing the required elimination threshold in the final polls, Tuesday’s elections can foreseeably turn either way.

And unless at least a couple of politicians break their promise after all the ballots are counted, the most likely scenario is a fifth election, with Israel’s constitutional stalemate only worsening.

“It’s impossible to say what the outcome will be, but a fifth, sixth and seventh round aren’t out of the question,” Nadav Shtrauchler, a political analyst and campaign strategist, told The Media Line.

“It all depends on voter turnout. With the polls this close and knowing what we know about the draws in the past three cycles, it’s about who can get their people out to vote,” he said.