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An Orthodox woman votes on Tuesday in Bnei Brak, Israel. Credit…Amir Levy/Getty Images

Israelis went to the polls Tuesday for the fourth time in two years in hopes of breaking a political deadlock that has left the country without a national budget and a stable government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is running for re-election despite a corruption trial, a decision that has divided the country and made the election a referendum on Netanyahu himself.

If re-elected, Netanyahu has promised to curb the power of the courts, paving the way for a confrontation between the judiciary and the executive that critics say could lead to a constitutional crisis. His opponents believe he wants to change the law to give himself immunity in his trial, an accusation he denies.

While pre-election polls suggest that Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party will be the largest party in the next parliament, it is unclear whether her broader alliance of conservative, ultra-Orthodox Jewish and ultra-nationalist parties will win enough seats to form a parliamentary majority.

If none of the parties can achieve a majority, the current stalemate will continue and fifth elections could be held in Israel in a few months.

Netanyahu’s critics believe that a collection of ideologically disjointed opposition parties will win enough seats to form a majority and then put aside their political differences to form a viable coalition.

Even if they win enough seats, it will be hard for them to agree. Parties opposing Netanyahu include parties on the right and on the left, as well as parties representing Israel’s Arab minority.

The main opposition candidate is former finance minister and centrist Yair Lapid. To depose Netanyahu, he needs the support of Gideon Saar, a former interior minister who shares many of Netanyahu’s political beliefs and who broke with the prime minister last year after Netanyahu refused to resign during the trial.

Lapid’s fate is also complicated by Naftali Bennett, another far-right activist who has not ruled out working with Netanyahu’s critics, but who says he will not support Lapid as prime minister. Both Bennett and Saar may refuse to form a coalition with two Arab parties, whose support would be crucial to driving Netanyahu from office.

The campaign was largely focused on Netanyahu himself, diverting attention from more existential issues such as the secular-religious divide in Israel, not to mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu focused his campaign on the world-leading vaccination campaign, which has resulted in most Israelis receiving at least one dose of the vaccine.

But his record on the coronavirus also makes him vulnerable. Mr. Netanyahu has often been accused of politicizing pandemic policy, including when he gently cheated by raising fines for violations of containment measures. The move was interpreted as a friendly gesture to ultra-Orthodox Israelis, who are responsible for the large number of segregation violations. Their political parties are an integral part of Mr Netanyahu’s efforts to form a coalition after the election.

His critics also accused him of sabotaging budget negotiations at the height of the pandemic in November. This action – for which he blames his coalition partners – broke his governing coalition and triggered today’s elections.

Yair Lapid has become the most influential opposition leader. credit linked Sebastian Shiner/Associated Press

In an effort to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from power, Yair Lapid, the centrist politician and former media star who is now Israel’s most influential opposition leader, has done what many politicians consider unthinkable.

If a diverse bloc of anti-Netanyahu parties wins enough votes to depose Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Lapid promised that he would not insist on retaining the prime minister’s seat if it became an obstacle to deposing his opponent.

The proposal shows a degree of humility rarely seen in Israeli politics – or in most political theaters. But it’s not just an act of nobility. Lapid is aware of the difficulties he may face in getting some of the other parties opposed to Netanyahu to support him as leader of an alternative coalition.

Lapid’s two potential coalition partners, Gideon Saar, a former conservative minister who recently left Netanyahu’s Likud, and Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Yamin party, see themselves as candidates for the premiership despite the relatively small size of their parties. Bennett promised before the election that he would not serve in a government led by Lapid, whom he considers too left-wing. Mr. Saar said he would be willing to alternate with Mr. Lapid as head of the government.

Netanyahu has focused his own campaign on fighting Lapid. He describes the race as one between right and left and considers it a lightweight.

Lapid has waged a silent campaign calling for the preservation of liberal democracy and preventing Netanyahu’s goal of forming a government of right-wing and religious parties backed by ultra-Orthodox rabbis and the extreme right.

Speaking to party activists before the elections, Lapid described the coalition government Netanyahu wanted to form and prevent as extremist, homophobic, chauvinist, racist and anti-democratic. He added: It is a government in which no one represents the workers, those who pay taxes and believe in the rule of law.

Lapid also called for the judiciary to be protected from Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption and who, along with his right-wing and religious allies, wants to curtail the powers of the Supreme Court.

As finance minister in the Netanyahu-led government formed in 2013, Lapid introduced changes to distribute the national burden more evenly between ordinary Israelis and the ultra-Orthodox, who prefer full-time Torah study to work and military service, and depend on charity and social benefits. Most of these measures have been reversed by subsequent governments.

Lapid’s party, Yesh Atid, was part of a tripartite alliance of centrists, called Blue and White, led by Benny Gantz, the former army chief of staff, in the last three elections. Lapid split from Blue-White after Gantz broke a key election promise and formed a troubled unity government with Netanyahu after last year’s elections.

After a successful career as a journalist and popular broadcaster, Lapid was the surprise of the 2013 elections, when his party exceeded expectations and came in second, becoming the main power player in the coalition formation.

His father, Yosef Lapid, a Holocaust survivor and a gruff anti-religious politician, also headed the centrist party and served as justice minister. His mother, Shulamit Lapid, is a famous novelist.

Lapid, an amateur boxer known for his chic, casual black outfit, came to power in 2011 amid protests for social justice, giving a voice to Israel’s struggling middle class.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he is stuck in the middle, representing safe positions in the Israeli-Jewish consensus.

Election banners of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party on election day. Credit…Tsafrir Abayev/Associated Press

When Israeli voters went to the polls on Tuesday, it wasn’t exactly a celebration of democracy.

Instead, there seemed to be an air of fatigue, cynicism and déjà vu about the election after three races that failed to bring any semblance of political stability.

The only person who wants to vote today is our dog, who is taking an extra walk this morning, said Gideon Zehavi, 54, a psychologist from Rehovot in central Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a traditional visit to the Wailing Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites, on Monday night and placed a handwritten note in a slot between giant stones. I pray that I will win the election for the sake of the State of Israel and Israel’s economy, he wrote.

His main opponent, Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist party, said after Tuesday’s vote: This is the moment of truth for the State of Israel.

Elad Shnezik, 24, a currency trader in Tzur Hadassah on the outskirts of Jerusalem, said he voted for Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, as he always has. There is no other leader here who can replace him with his qualities and skills at a high level, Snezik said.

He said he was not concerned that Mr Netanyahu would be tried for corruption, fraud and breach of trust. No man is pure, he said.

Shai Komarov, 30, a yoga teacher in Jerusalem, said he would vote for the mostly Arab United List. There needs to be a big change in the agenda, he said. He himself has admitted that he switched to the left a year or two ago. It’s gonna be hard to keep up.

But he added: Someone who is deposed should not become prime minister. I’ll leave it at that.

Negin Abrahamova, 45, from Ramle, another town in central Israel, said she had no intention of voting this time. I have resisted voting the last three times, she said, and every government formed since the election has failed me and the purpose for which it was formed.

Although opinion polls indicate a possible continuation of the impasse that led to re-election, Albert Sombrero, 33, another voter in Rehovot, said: I have a feeling we’ll be seeing each other again in six months.

– Isabel Kershner, Gabby Sobelman, Irit Pazner Garshowitz and Adam Rasgon.

Rahamim Gavura votes in the intensive care unit for coronavirus patients at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital on Tuesday.Credit…Oded Baletti/Associated Press

A third more ballot boxes than usual. Fifty additional mobile polling stations that can be used to prevent overcrowding. Separate polling stations in polyclinics and tent cities for infected or quarantined voters. Urns placed in retirement homes.

These are some of the precautions taken by Israel’s Central Election Commission as the country holds its fourth election in two years, and the first in a pandemic.

The goal, he said, is to give every citizen a say in all possible public health measures.

Israel does not allow voting in absentia, and only diplomats or staff working abroad are allowed to vote by mail. So the pandemic has complicated the electoral process – and may affect the outcome.

Israelis are not required to give up their vaccination status in order to vote. But with the majority of Israelis over the age of 18 already fully vaccinated in a rapid vaccination campaign that has outpaced the rest of the world, and with infection rates dropping dramatically, the risk of contracting the virus is diminishing for many Israelis.

The pandemic has received a lot of attention in political campaigns. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took out a personal loan to buy millions of doses of vaccine and claimed victory over the virus. His government opened up the economy in the days and weeks leading up to the election, including restaurants, cultural events and nightlife.

Mr Netanyahu’s opponents have focused on the more than 6,000 Israelis killed by the virus, accusing him of prioritising his political and personal interests over the public interest in his earlier handling of the crisis.

This month, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that daily quotas for incoming flights should be abolished, in part to allow Israeli citizens abroad to return in time to vote. They even put a ballot box at the airport. But on Tuesday it was recorded that more Israelis had left the country instead of going to the polls.

A demonstration against an Israeli settlement near Nablus in the occupied West Bank this month. The prospect of a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians remains bleak regardless of the outcome of the Israeli elections….. Alaa Badarne/ EPA, via Shutterstock.

Whether it ends in victory or defeat for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or any other chaos, analysts believe the election will not have a major impact on Israeli foreign policy or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israelis of all political persuasions broadly agree on what they see as the threat posed by Iran. They share widespread opposition to the Biden administration’s attempt to revise the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which many considered ineffective. And efforts to normalize relations with previously hostile Arab states, a process initiated by Netanyahu, are likely to continue under his successor.

Any Israeli government would also resist attempts by the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israeli leaders for alleged war crimes in the occupied territories. And even with a change of government, the prospect of a final status agreement with the Palestinians remains bleak. Two of Netanyahu’s potential successors oppose the creation of a Palestinian state and support the annexation of part or all of the West Bank.

Dalia Scheindlin, a political analyst and sociologist from Tel Aviv, said there will be no change in policy. It could be a difference in tone.

Netanyahu has clashed with President Barack Obama and sought alliances with such right-wing nationalists as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and President Donald J. Clinton.

But Yair Lapid, the centrist opposition leader who is Netanyahu’s closest opponent, would see himself in the same light as other moderate world leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Scheindlin said.

He considers himself a centrist, a pragmatist who believes in the international system, she added. Until he comes for Israel.

In an effort to cultivate an American aura, Gideon Saar, one of the prime minister’s main right-wing rivals, has promised to deal more constructively with the United States than Netanyahu did during the Obama administration.

And while he opposes a revival of the 2015 nuclear deal, Mr. Saar is likely to disagree with Mr. Netanyahu about catalyzing regime change in Tehran, said Ofer Zalsberg, director of the Middle East program at the Herbert Kelman Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group.

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