Israel’s chief election officer this week briefed lawmakers on her agency’s pop-up precautions, a possible glimpse at how the outbreak could alter normal procedures in balloting planned around the world later this year.
In tents across Israel, quarantined voters wearing masks and latex gloves will cast their ballots — to be sealed in special double envelopes and counted separately — on one side of a clear plastic wall. Overseeing the vote on the other side will be EMTs from the Magen David Adom paramedic corps, the only poll volunteers officials could find.
“No one was willing to work there,” Orly Ades, director general of Israel’s Central Elections Committee, told a parliamentary committee this week, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Israel’s experience with an infection election will be watched closely by other election-year countries, including the United States, where candidates and health officials also hope to keep the coronavirus from disrupting politics as it has tourism and stock markets.
Coverage of a potential outbreak in Israel exploded in the last week of the campaign following reports that a group of South Korean tourists, some of whom later tested positive for the virus, had visited many of Israel’s most crowded religious and historic sites.
Hundreds of Israelis who may have overlapped with the group were ordered into isolation. The Health Ministry recently announced that those quarantined could come out to vote, but only if they didn’t show active symptoms and did not take public transportation.
As the government announced increasing restrictions — barring visitors from several Asian countries and mandating quarantine for Israelis returning from coronavirus hot spots — the campaigns struggled to keep the attention of voters already exhausted and apathetic after a year of nonstop politicking.
“This is a like a script that we’ve seen over and over,” said Ari Gorlin, a tech executive having lunch in Jerusalem’s Hadar Mall three days before the vote. “It’s hard to get excited.”
Voting levels actually crept up in the second election in September, despite predictions by many experts that the do-over election would draw less interest. This time, with apathy mixing with germophobia, no one knows how many voters will bother.
“Turnout will be key, but I don’t know how to predict it this time,” said Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. “I’m afraid of looking like a fool again.”
Israelis get a day off for national elections, and campaigns frequently remind voters not to waste it on shopping or beach trips. (The Likud party released an ad before September’s vote beseeching its supporters not to squander their free day on weekday sex). But this time, some fed-up voters are not sticking around. Eric Rosenberg turned out for the last two elections, but now he plans to take his family skiing.
“There is definitely an ‘enough is enough’ factor,” said Rosenberg, who works in marketing for a Jerusalem financial services company. “I definitely believe in exercising my right to vote, but this is ridiculous.”
Israel has been stuck on an electoral treadmill since the first vote in April, when parties led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former army chief of staff Benny Gantz both failed to secure enough seats in the Knesset to form a government.
Weeks of negotiations following that vote and the second one in September budged no one. Gantz pledged never to join forces with Netanyahu, who was under investigation on corruption allegations. Netanyahu was unable to find additional Knesset factions for his right-wing bloc.
There have been developments since the last vote. President Trump unveiled his Middle East peace plan in January, with Netanyahu claiming credit for its unprecedented slant toward Israel. And Netanyahu was formally indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in November. After giving up on controversial efforts to secure parliamentary immunity from prosecution, he faces trial beginning March 17.
And yet, polls have shown little movement in an electorate that is both sharply divided and deeply entrenched, leaving all parties racing to motivate their bases. Hoffman has been tracking an unprecedented get-out-the-vote program by Netanyahu’s camp targeting some 300,000 Likud voters who reportedly sat out the last election.
The days leading up to Monday’s election have seen a blitz of final rallies and mudslinging. In two straight days this week, Gantz was hit by vaguely sourced allegations that Iran possessed a compromising sex tape of him. Then a leaked recording surfaced of Gantz’s political consultant disparaging him as “a total loser.”
Hardball tactics are nothing new in Israel’s blood-sport political culture, but analysts don’t know if any message will penetrate the sudden cacophony of coronavirus coverage dominating the news. The final opinion polls showed Likud edging ahead, but not by enough to give Netanyahu’s bloc the 61-seat majority it needs to form the next government.
That would leave Israelis facing the chilling prospect of a fourth election.