TV exit polls Tuesday night showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud set to retain the Israeli leadership at the end of a bitter election campaign. Netanyahu claimed victory early Wednesday morning, though his rival Isaac Herzog did not concede defeat.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. on Tuesday and Israeli citizens headed for the ballots to vote for Israel’s 20th Knesset. Polls from the end of last week had left options open for a tight race. The TV exit polls were published at 10 p.m., as polling stations closed, after which official results began to roll in. The official final results won’t be publicized until Thursday.

Netanyahu, vying for the role for his fourth time (third consecutively), had made a last-ditch attempt over the past days to win back voters mainly from the right-wing bloc, vowing Monday night to block a Palestinian state should he remain in office.

Unlike years past, analysts had said the race between Likud and Zionist Union, the two leading factions, was too close to call with confidence, but the exit polls showed Netanyahu clearly better placed to build the next coalition. At 1 a.m. on Wednesday morning, he delivered a celebratory speech in which he hailed a “victory against the odds… a victory for our people.”

The Times of Israel liveblogged throughout Tuesday and into Wednesday morning.

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10,119 ballot boxes open for 5.9m voters

It’s election day and 10,119 polling stations opened at 7 a.m. across the country. 5,883,365 eligible voters will be able to cast their ballots until 10 p.m., when first exit polls are due.

In small communities with less than 350 residents, polling stations will open at 8 a.m. and remain open until 8 p.m.

2,500 stations will be accessible to disabled persons. 255 polling stations will be placed in hospitals and 27 stations will be placed in prisons.

IDF soldiers voted over the past few days, while Israeli diplomats abroad voted already two weeks ago.

Twenty-five parties are running in the elections for the 20th Knesset. Eleven of those stand a realistic chance  of passing the electoral threshold and making it into the next Knesset.

Netanyahu and wife Sara vote in Jerusalem

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu votes early after polling stations opened, with his wife Sara alongside him.

Addressing the TV cameras immediately afterwards, Netanyahu says Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett will be the second person he calls after results are made public, to offer a “unity government,” a slip of the tongue as this expression is used to describe a coalition of parties from opposing sides of the spectrum. First on Netanyahu’s list is Miriam Peretz, an Israeli educator who lost two sons in the IDF and was offered a place on the Likud list (she refused).

Netanyahu immediately emphasizes that he means “unity of the national camp” and says emphatically “there will be no unity with Labor.”

The third person Netanyahu plans to call, should he win the election, is the president of the United States, he says.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara cast their vote at a polling station in Jerusalem on March 17, 2015. (photo credit: Photo by Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/FLASH90)

Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara cast their votes at a polling station in Jerusalem on March 17, 2015. (photo credit: Photo by Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/FLASH90)

Zionist Union ad omits Livni portrait

Zionist Union campaign graphic designers were quick to update electioneering material sent by email to voters on Tuesday morning.

In the image, a note designed as if hanging from a door says “I’m out to make history, I’ll be right back”

Beneath it, Isaac Herzog’s portrait (emulating the Obama “hope” image) appears with the words “we are the revolution.” Tzipi Livni’s name appears in tiny type on a reproduction of the party’s voting ticket at the bottom of the ad.

Livni and Herzog announced yesterday evening that she would forgo rotating with Herzog in the roll of prime minister, if the party wins the election. When Livni joined, rotation was her condition for running alongside Herzog.

A Zionist Union campaign ad from Tuesday, March 17 2015. (photo credit: Screen capture)

A Zionist Union campaign ad from Tuesday, March 17 2015. (photo credit: Screen capture)

624,000 out of the country on Election Day

Some 624,000 Israelis are out of the country on Election Day, Israel Radio reports.

While initial results will be known by around midnight or earlier, the official vote count will not be over before Thursday. Only in six days, next Wednesday, will President Reuven Rivlin receive official and final results of the election.

President Rivlin votes in Jerusalem

The president arrives to vote in Jerusalem.

Deri votes, says Shas will ‘surprise pollsters’

Shas chairman Aryeh Deri votes in Jerusalem.

“This is the day we waited for and worked so hard for,” Deri is quoted by Ynet as saying.

“I hope tonight we will surprise all pollsters and the result – at least this is what I feel – will be higher than the latest polls.”

Kahlon hopes for results after ‘exhausting’ campaign

Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon votes in the “Reali” school in Haifa.

Moshe Kahlon says his recommendation for the role of prime minister may be the deciding factor and therefore both Netanyahu and Herzog should listen to him. (photo credit: Flash90)

Moshe Kahlon says his recommendation for the role of prime minister may be the deciding factor and therefore both Netanyahu and Herzog should listen to him. (photo credit: Flash90)

“We are at the peak of a long and exhausting campaign, but my feeling is great and I hope tonight we will show good results,” he says.

“The more Knesset seats we have, the more tools we will have to carry out reforms for the benefit of Israel’s citizens,” Ynet quotes Kahlon.

Herzog votes ‘for change over despair’ in Tel Aviv

Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog votes in the Zahala School in Tel Aviv.

After voting, he says “these elections are about change and hope, or despair and disappointment.”

Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog accompanied by his wife Michal prepares to cast his vote in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, March 17, 2015. (photo credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog accompanied by his wife Michal prepares to cast his vote in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, March 17, 2015. (photo credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Lapid hopes election won’t bring ‘unity gov’t with Haredi parties’

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid votes in Tel Aviv and says the election is “first and foremost a celebration of democracy and I call on everyone to go and cast their votes, whichever party you vote for.”

“We are here because we fight for the State of Israel. We fight against the possibility that at the end of this day, instead of a government that brings change and hope to the state of Israel, we will end up with a unity government of Bibi [Netanyahu], Boujie [Herzog] and the Haredim,” Lapid says.

Yair Lapid casts his vote at a polling station in Tel Aviv on March 17, 2015. (Photo credit: Ben Kelmer / FLASH90)

Yair Lapid casts his vote at a polling station in Tel Aviv on March 17, 2015. (Photo credit: Ben Kelmer / FLASH90)

Voter turnout in embassies, consulates 71.2%

The Central Election Committee says the voter turnout in Israeli embassies and consulates stands at 71.2%.

Israeli diplomats and their families, Jewish Agency emissaries and Israeli local workers are all allowed to vote while outside the country.

Liberman calls on Israelis to vote for ‘Zionist parties’

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman votes in his home settlement of Nokdim, and says “I call on all Israeli citizens to go out and vote for any of the Zionist parties.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Meretz, Yisrael Beytenu, or the Jewish Home, the important thing is to vote for a Zionist party because it’s important to preserve the Jewish and Zionist character of the Jewish state,” he says.

Livni: It’s a vote between ‘Zionism and radicalism’

Zionist Union’s No. 2 Tzipi Livni votes in Tel Aviv and says that she “and Herzog are partners, and our goal is to replace Netanyahu, not the chair,” referring to her agreeing to give up on rotating with Herzog in the role of prime minister, should they win.

Livni says that “what happened at the square on Sunday demonstrates what we are fighting for, it’s a struggle between Zionism and radicalism.” Livni is referring to the right wing rally that took place in Rabin Square on Sunday evening.

Tzipi Livni casts her vote in the Israeli general elections in Tel Aviv on March 17, 2015. (Photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Tzipi Livni casts her vote in the Israeli general elections in Tel Aviv on March 17, 2015. (Photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Galant says ‘people leave the country because of economics, not Iran’

A senior Kulanu official says “from both sides, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog, told [party leader Moshe] Kahlon ‘Come, sign with us and you’ll be finance minister’. But Kahlon does not want to come as ‘hired help’ – he wants to win this role by deserving it,” according to NRG.

The Kulanu leader “wants to reach the Finance Ministry with 15 Knesset seats – not six,” the unnamed official says. “We are the poorest party, with the smallest budget, but we have good momentum. A double-digit number of seats will be a huge achievement.”

Moshe Kahlon, leader of Kulanu Party, and ex-IDF General Yoav Galant at the party headquarters in Lod on March 16, 2015 (photo credit: Flash90)

Moshe Kahlon, leader of Kulanu Party, and ex-IDF General Yoav Galant at the party headquarters in Lod on March 16, 2015 (photo credit: Flash90)

The party’s No. 2, Yoav Galant, voted in Amikam, where he lives, earlier. “This is the time for change. No one has left the country because of Iran – people leave the country because they are despaired by the social and economic situation. The time has come to put this at the top of the agenda,” Galant says.

Interior Ministry’s ‘Where do I vote’ website crashes

The Interior Ministry website helping Israelis find the polling station where they belong crashed shortly after 9 a.m., according to the Central Election Committee.

When searching for the correct polling station by ID number the website shows no results but links to an error page. The Interior Ministry says it is dealing with the problem.

According to Israeli law, voters can only cast their votes in a polling station close to where they are officially registered as living in Interior Ministry records.

Typically, on Election Day, students and other people renting apartments who never bothered to update their home address must travel to the polling station nearest to where they are registered in order to cast their ballots.

Haredi ‘Jerusalem branch’ may cost right wing bloc one Knesset seat

Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, leader of the Lithuanian branch in the ultra-Orthodox community, decides to boycott the election completely.

Early this week it became known that Auerbach, who leads a small but vocal minority of traditional UTJ voters, will not vote for UTJ. Sources in the party feared that Auerbach will tell his followers, numbering c. 30,000, to vote for Eli Yishai’s Yachad.

On Monday a statement from the circle of the rabbi said he does not instruct his voters to vote for any of the parties. This was understood as allowing the community to make up their own minds. If the rabbi’s followers decide to do likewise and not vote, UTJ and the entire right wing bloc may lose a Knesset seat.

Rivlin says voting is ‘a privilege and a duty’

A smiling President Rivlin accompanied by First Lady Nechama Rivlin cast their votes in Jerusalem, earlier today.

Speaking after he cast his ballot, Rivlin calls on all Israelis to vote: “Take the country’s fate in your hands. Come out and vote! This is not just a privilege, but to a large extent a duty.”

President Reuven Rivlin and First Lady Nechama Rivlin cast their votes this morning. (photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO)

President Reuven Rivlin and First Lady Nechama Rivlin cast their votes this morning. (photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO)

Kahlon won’t support ‘Herzog-Arab gov’t’

Kulanu leader Kahlon says he will not support a Herzog-led government if Isaac Herzog chooses to establish a narrow coalition supported by the Joint (Arab) List.

Likud fined for Kahlon recording

Central Election Committee chairman Justice Salim Joubran fines Likud for misleading voters by distributing a recording of Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon praising Likud candidates.

The recording is genuine but dates from when Kahlon was still a Likud MK. The party claimed that the recording was not misleading. However, Joubran decided to ban use of the recording and fined Likud NIS 20,000.

101-year-old Rabbi Steinman walks to polling station

Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman, a prominent rabbinical figure in the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community, votes in the balloting station near his home, Israel National News reports.

Steinman, who is 101 years old, goes to the polling station on foot.

Only 7.4% of eligible voters cast ballots by 9 a.m.

As of 9 a.m. 7.4 percent of eligible voters have cast ballots, Israeli media report.

In 2013, which saw a relatively high turnout, 11.4 percent had voted by 10 a.m., and in 2009, 10.3 percent had voted by 10 a.m.

Officials are expected to release turnout numbers for 10 a.m. shortly.

Police detain voter for allegedly removing notes of party from polling station

Police detain a 71-year-old man in Kokhav Ya’akov after a polling station observer notices him allegedly stepping out of a polling station with the entire pack of notes for one of the parties, Israel Radio reports.

At the Yachad party headquarters, meanwhile, officials complain that in various ballots around the country Shas activists are removing or hiding the party’s notes. Yachad filed a complaint with the Central Election Committee.

Meretz leader concerned, but ‘trusts the voters’

Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On votes in Petah Tikva near her home, and says, “I am very excited. I didn’t really get much sleep last night but I count on Meretz voters.”

Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On speaking in the Knesset last year (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On speaking in the Knesset last year (photo credit: Abir Sultan/Flash 90)

“Feelings are mixed today,” Gal-On says. “It’s optimism mixed with concern, but at this trying hour I trust our voters.”

Several polls have shown the left-wing Meretz only barely clearing the 3.25% threshold for representation in the Knesset.

Kahlon ‘disappointed’ by Likud’s ‘fake’ recording

In a first reaction to Likud’s presenting an old Moshe Kahlon recording as if it were made recently, the Kulanu leader says, “I am very disappointed; they were my friends and I am sad they chose to behave like this.”

Likud was fined NIS 20,000 by the Central Election Committee for disseminating a recording in which Kahlon is heard praising the MKs on Likud list of candidates. The recording is from the days when Kahlon was a Likud member, but to non-discerning listeners could be construed as having been made in recent days, the Central Election Committee ruled.

Peres votes in ‘celebration of democracy’

Former president Shimon Peres votes in a polling station in Jerusalem, and says: “Today we all influence Israel’s future as well as its image, by voting. I am excited to fulfill my civic duty, and together we can all show the world Israel is a vibrant democracy with equal rights for all.”

“I call on all citizens of Israel – Jewish, Arab, Christian, Druze, Circassian, young and old – come to vote. Today is a celebration of democracy,” Peres says.

Turnout numbers similar to years past — report

Officials will apparently only release turnout numbers for noon and not 10 a.m. as in years past.

The 7.4 percent turnout number for 9 a.m. is similar to past elections, according to Army Radio, though its hard to do an exact comparison since figures are normally released for 10 a.m. and not 9.

The 2013 election saw the highest turnout in over a decade, with 11.4 percent by 10 a.m. and 26.7 percent by noon.

While a high turnout has historically helped left-leaning parties, it’s not clear whether the same will hold true this year, with both sides launching targeted get-out-the-vote drives.

A polling station at a school near Hadera on March 17, 2015. (photo credit: Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

A polling station at a school near Hadera on March 17, 2015. (photo credit: Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Turnout numbers way up over 2013

Israeli media is now reporting 13.7 percent of eligible voters have cast ballots by 10 a.m., a significant jump over last election’s number.

The 2013 election, which saw the highest turnout since 1999, saw 11.4% vote by 10 a.m.

High turnout nearly matches last time Netanyahu lost

The 13.7 percent turnout number comes close to the 14.2 percent who had voted by 10 a.m. in 1999.

That year, which saw Labor leader Ehud Barak push Netanyahu from power, 78.7% of eligible Israelis voted, before turnout numbers fell off to the low-mid 60s in the new millennium.

In 2001 for instance, only 62.3% voted, though by 10 a.m. that year a relatively high 11.1 percent had voted.

Ayman Odeh ‘excited to become part of history’

Joint (Arab) List chairman Ayman Odeh votes in a polling station in Haifa and says he is excited.

Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List comprised of Balad, Ra'am-Ta'al, Hadash and the Islamic Movement. (Photo credit: CC BY-SA 4.0, Anan M/Wikimedia)

Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint Arab List comprised of Balad, Ra’am-Ta’al, Hadash and the Islamic Movement. (Photo credit: CC BY-SA 4.0, Anan M/Wikimedia)

“Like every other Arab citizen of the state I am excited to vote, to become part of the history and turning point that will significantly change the reality of life of Arab and other citizens of the country.”

Kahlon: Hard to recommend party ‘lacking compassion, sensitivity’

Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon says it would be hard to recommend to the president to appoint as prime minister the head of a party “without sensitivity or compassion that for years did not listen to the public” — plainly a reference to Netanyahu and Likud. “The cost of housing has only risen more and more,” he adds, according to Israel Radio.

Earlier Kahlon said he would not recommend Zionist Union if he knows for sure that the party will depend on the backing of the Joint (Arab) List.

Google doodles Israel’s elections

Google gets into the election spirit, changing its signature logo in Israel to an election-themed doodle.

Google's 2015 election doodle. (Screen capture, Google.co.il)

Google did the same last time around, in January 2013.

Google's election-themed doodle in January 2013. (screen capture, google.co.il)

Bibi beats Herzog — on Wikipedia

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly beats his challenger Isaac Herzog – at least in the number of times Internet users looked up their names on Wikipedia.

In the 90 days leading up to Election Day, 53,630 people surfed onto the Hebrew entry for Netanyahu – about ten thousand more than were interested in Herzog (43,553).

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote at a polling station in Jerusalem on March 17, 2015. Photo credit: Marc israel Sellem/POOL/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote at a polling station in Jerusalem on March 17, 2015. Photo credit: Marc israel Sellem/POOL/FLASH90)

Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett came in a distant third with 25,427 page views, followed closely by Herzog’s running mate Tzipi Livni (25,011), according to figures provided by Wikimedia Israel chairman Itzik Edri. United Torah Judaism chief Yaakov Litzman was the least-searched for party-head, with 3,015 page views; but this might also have to do with the fact that many ultra-Orthodox Jews shun Internet use.

When it comes to the two major parties, however, Herzog’s Zionist Union raised more curiosity among surfers, with 32,541 looking for the new list’s name on Wikipedia, while only 23,105 looked up the Likud’s entry.

Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog accompanied by his wife Michal prepares to cast his vote in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, March 17, 2015. (photo credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog accompanied by his wife Michal prepares to cast his vote in Tel Aviv, Tuesday, March 17, 2015. (photo credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

On Wikipedia’s English site, Netanyahu runs in a different league. His entry was called up 450,340 times (some 150,000 page views occurred around the time of his controversial speech to the US Congress). In contrast, the Wikipedia page on Herzog came in second with a lousy 59,902 page views, according to Edri. Livni came in third with 41,801, followed by Bennett with 26,824.

— Raphael Ahren

Gideon Sa’ar believes Likud is ‘right path’

Former Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar, who left politics to focus on his personal life, arrives to vote in Tel Aviv.

Sa’ar says “a day of elections is always an important and exciting day. The Likud’s path is the one I believe in with all my heart. This is the right path for the future of Israel,” says Sa’ar.

Sa’ar is widely seen as a possible heir to the Likud throne in a future leadership race against Netanyahu. Political pundits believe he left politics planning to return as a candidate to lead his party.

Ayman Odeh votes in Nazareth

Leader of the Joint (Arab) List, joined by his children, votes at the polling station in Nazareth.

Leader of the Joint (Arab) List votes in Nazareth. (photo credit: Flash90)

Sderot remains a Likud stronghold

The streets of Sderot are lined with banners for Likud, Jewish Home, Shas and Yachad. In the last election, the city voted primarily for Likud, Jewish Home and Shas.

Yachad, led by Eli Yishai, splintered from Shas ahead of today’s election and joined with the ultra-hawkish Otzma Le’Israel.

People who agreed to reveal who they voted for all said they voted for Likud, citing the issue of security as their top concern.

— Ilan Ben Zion

IDF calls on soldiers to vote

The IDF spokesperson calls on all soldiers and all Israelis to vote today.

We at the Times of Israel join this call, and say to our readers: If you are eligible voters, go out and vote.

Voter turnout at 26% by noon

Voter turnout reached 26% by noon, similar to the turnout by that point in the day in 2013. Whether the high turnout was a predictor of a high final turnout today or just a result of the beautiful weather prompting many to vote early before going out to enjoy their day off is hard to gauge.

Another difficulty in divining any meaning from the midday turnout number is found in the fact that today it was measured from 8,500 real ballot boxes, while in 2013 it was based on a survey.

Likud ‘concerned’ as Arab citizens fulfill civic duty

Likud issues an official statement expressing its “concern” over the high voter turnout in the Arab sector. Prime Minister Netanyahu uploaded a clip to Facebook where he says “the rule of the right is in danger. Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot boxes. Left wing NGOs bring them in buses.”

Netanyahu continues: “We have no V15 movement, we have just a call to arms, and we only have you. Go out to the polling stations; bring your friends and family members.  Vote Likud to close the gap between us and the Labor party.”

Hadash mocks Likud ‘concerns’ over Arab votes

The Hadash party — which is part of the broader Joint (Arab) List — humorously responds on Twitter to the Likud’s “concern” over the high turnout rates in the Arab communities.

The image is posted by Hadash’s official account.

Suspicion of problems at poll in Umm al-Fahem

Police in Umm al-Fahem, a city in the Triangle region of nothern Israel, open an investigation following complaints of irregularities at a polling station.

Netanyahu nixes a newsman, again

Netanyahu for the second time in less than a week picks and chooses his journalists: the prime minister was interviewed by telephone on Channel 10 early this morning, but he demanded that Maariv reporter Ben Caspit leave the studio as a condition to giving the interview.

The management of Channel 10 decided not to cave in, but Caspit, who was a special guest on the panel of the Channel 10 morning show, voluntarily left the studio before the call started.

Caspit later tweets: “After many requests I agreed to wake up early and come to the Channel 10 studio this morning. And then it was found out that Bibi is not willing to do the interview as long as I am in the studio. It was clarified [to Netanyahu] that I will not ask any questions. He insisted, so I left.”

Ben Caspit, political reporter for Ma’ariv, photographed in the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem on Jan 22, 2009 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

Ben Caspit (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

Caspit later tweets: “After we realized Bibi won’t do the interview so long as I’m in the studio, I left of my own volition, so that the man ‘strong against Hamas’ will feel safe.”

Guy Meroz and Orly Vilnai, the hosts of the morning show, asked Netanyahu why he refused to do the interview with Caspit present. Netanyahu said “he is not a journalist. People who badmouth me personally, badmouth my family — I do not owe them any benefits as if they are journalists.”

Last week Netanyahu refused to be interviewed by Channel 10 because the station would not expel Raviv Drucker, another Netanyahu nemesis, from the studio. Netanyahu was interviewed by Channel  2 and Channel 1. During his interview with Channel 2, anchor Yonit Levi asked him whether his behavior with journalists was not “a bit Putinesque.”

Head of Umm al-Fahm polling station held

The head of the Umm al-Fahm polling station committee is detained after the secretary at the station reports that he saw him inserting envelopes into the ballot box illegally.

Police chief sees few irregularities so far

Police chief Yohanan Danino says that by 1:30 p.m. very few unusual events have been reported during the voting and adds that thousands of police officers were stationed near polling stations across the country.

Danino tells Israel Radio that when polling stations close, police cars will secure the transfer of all ballot boxes to the Central Election Committee in Jerusalem.

13k people share on Facebook that they voted

13,000 people share on Facebook that they have already voted, according to a Facebook graph generated in real time.

A Facebook showing the amount of people who shared on Facebook that they have voted in the Israeli elections. (photo credit: Screen Capture, Facebook)

A Facebook showing the amount of people who shared on Facebook that they have voted in the Israeli elections. (photo credit: Screen Capture, Facebook)

While the number has little consequence (comprising only the voters who use Facebok and those who decided to reveal on the social media service that they have voted), it interestingly showed a consistent rise since the early morning hours but has started to gradually decline.

Tibi fires back at Netanyahu

Joint (Arab) List candidate Ahmed Tibi says “Netanyahu is panicking, inciting against Arab voters who are fulfilling their natural and democratic right like any other citizen.”

MK Ahmad Tibi participates in a panel discussion at the Israel Conference on Democracy, in Tel Aviv on February 17, 2015. (photo credit: Amir Levy/Flash90)

MK Ahmad Tibi participates in a panel discussion at the Israel Conference on Democracy, in Tel Aviv on February 17, 2015. (photo credit: Amir Levy/Flash90)

“Netanyahu and Likud,” says Tibi, are “scared, and this is why I call on the Arab public to go out to vote in bigger numbers so that Bibi continue to panic. Change is afoot.”

Netanyahu later says the problem is not Arab voting on its own but the fact that massive funding from foreign government and other sources abroad is used to drive Israeli Arabs to polling stations and “thus distorts the true will of most Israeli voters in favor of the left.”

On way to wedding, couple votes with Yair Lapid

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid accompanied Victoria and Gary, who are getting married today, as they went to the ballot box. The soon-to-be-married couple are both declared Yesh Atid voters.

Victoria and Gary, both 35, live in Ramat Pinkas and are getting married later today in Ness Ziona.

“It’s important for us to vote for our children’s future before we get married so we voted Yesh Atid. We believe that Yair Lapid and Yesh Atid is the way forward for our country,” they say, according to a statement from the party.

Lapid congratulates them on their choice as well as on their nuptials: “It’s so exciting that you chose to start your wedding day like this. Just before the wedding I’ll be with you on your way to the voting booth, excited to meet you and happy that you are voting for Yesh Atid. A vote for us is a vote for a better future for us and for your children.”

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid shakes hands with Victoria, who will marry Gary later on Tuesday. The couple both vote for Yesh Atid and went to vote on their way to their Huppah. (picture credit: Courtesy Yair Lapid)

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid shakes hands with Victoria, who will marry Gary later on Tuesday. The couple both voted for Yesh Atid on their way to their wedding. (picture credit: Courtesy Yair Lapid)

Turnout at 2 p.m. is 36.7%

36.7% of Israelis cast their ballots by 2 p.m., slightly lower than in 2013 (38.3%) but slightly higher than in 2009 (34.0%).

The Central Election Committee publicizes the voter turnout every two hours on Election Day, starting at 10 a.m.

The highest final turnout since 1973 has been 79.7%, in 1988. The lowest turnout was in 2001, 62.3%.

29% of IDF soldiers vote by 12 p.m.

29% of IDF soldiers have voted by noon, 2.8% more than during the 2013 election.

IDF soldiers take part in early voting process two days before the Knesset Elections, March 15, 2015. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)

IDF soldiers take part in early voting process two days before the Knesset Elections, March 15, 2015. (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson)

Yachimovich skewers Netanyahu

Shelly Yachimovich, No. 2 on the Zionist Union list, slams Netanyahu for his alarmist call to Likud voters regarding a high turnout in the Arab sector.

Answering a question from a voter on Facebook, Yachimovich says: “No Western leader would dare utter such a racist comment. Imagine a prime minister/president in any democracy who would warn that his rule is in jeopardy because, e.g., ‘Black voters are coming in droves to the polling stations’… Horrendous, isn’t it? In any case, I think what worries Bibi is that Israeli citizens are moving in droves to the ballots, and quite simply want to democratically topple him.”

Hadash MK visits Joint List HQ in Umm al-Fahm

MK Afu Aghbariyah (Hadash) visits the headquarters of the Joint (Arab) List in Umm al-Fahm.

“Time to let the younger generation advance,” says Aghbariyah, who was placed in a honorary spot low on the list.

— Elhanan Miller

MK Afu Aghbariyah (hadash) visits the headquarters of the Joint (Arab) List in Umm al Fahm. (photo credit: Elhanan Miller)

MK Afu Aghbariyah (Hadash) visits the headquarters of the Joint (Arab) List in Umm al-Fahm. (photo credit: Elhanan Miller)

 

Yachad, Shas bicker over radio stations

Eli Yishai’s Yachad party filed a complaint with the Central Elections Committee against ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Chai, while Shas filed its own complaint against the Kol Berama radio station.

Aryeh Deri all smiles, on December 30, 2014, after his resignation was rejected. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Aryeh Deri all smiles on December 30, 2014, after his resignation was rejected. (photo credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Eli Yishai’s call to Shas for a truce yesterday fell on deaf ears, evidently, as the few reports of irregularities involved mainly activists of these two parties.

Central Elections Committee chairman Justice Salim Joubran issued restraining orders to both radio stations mandating that they refrain from broadcasting election material, even as he noted that he was not sure broadcasts on Tuesday violated the prohibition against electioneering on Election Day.

“I listened to the programming of Kol Chai radio and did not hear material that constituted electioneering,” Joubran wrote. Regarding Shas’s claim, Joubran again did not say electioneering material was aired but issued the restraining order “for the possibility it may be so.”

Shas MK Eli Yishai, December 8, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Shas MK Eli Yishai, December 8, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Kol Berama was initially established under sponsorship from Shas, when Ariel Atias served as communications minister. But Shas has claimed the station is biased against the party since Yachad splintered from Shas. Zvi Amar, the owner of Kol Berama, is an associate of Yishai as well as of Rabbi Meir Mazuz, the spiritual leader of Yachad, NRG reports.

Bedouin radio calls for liberation of Gaza

Radio stations in Tel Sheva and Rahat, two Bedouin communities in the Negev, call on residents of the area to vote for the Joint (Arab) List.

There are 93,000 eligible voters in Rahat and Tel Sheva.

More disconcertingly, the stations also air songs calling for the liberation of “Palestine,” and slogans like “We have beaten the Zionist; we will raise arms to liberate the land of Gaza,” Israel Radio reports.

Bennett fears a fall to single digits

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett is worried that his party may end up with Knesset seats in the single digits.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, casts his vote in general elections in in Ra’anana, March 17, 2015. (photo credit: Flash90)

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party, casts his vote in general elections in in Ra’anana, March 17, 2015. (photo credit: Flash90)

Speaking to Israel National News, Bennett says, “I returned from Holon, Bat Yam, Beersheba, Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi and now I’m headed for Jerusalem – the regional branches give us reports and the situation is not very good.

“There is a massive siphoning of votes from Jewish Home to Likud, including in the heart of hearts of religious Zionism — a feeling like Likud is trying to crush us,” Bennett says.

“I think this will be a great mistake since a large Likud with a small Jewish Home is a very dangerous thing, and has led to the disengagement, the Hebron agreement and the Bar-Ilan speech,” Bennett says.

The Jewish Home leader called on the public not to vote strategically: “I call on the public to vote from the heart, not do these calculations, because in the end it will cause us great damage.

“I feel there are a lot of votes moving from Jewish Home to Likud. Likud is anyway in very good shape and what matters is the number of people who recommend to the president” who should form the next coalition, he adds.

“We mustn’t become a single-digit number [of seats in the Knesset]. I am optimistic because there are still many hours left,” Bennett concludes.

Turnout by 4 p.m. at 45.4%

45.4% of eligible voters cast their ballots by 4 p.m., slightly less than the 46.6% measured by 4 p.m. during the 2013 election.

Turnout among IDF soldiers is nearly 3% higher for this time of day.

No evidence of high Arab turnout

According to Ynet and Channel 2, there is no indication that turnout in Arab communities is significantly higher than in past elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement earlier Tuesday warning right-wing voters that Arab turnout was very high.

“We’re worried about high turnout in the Arab sector,” a Likud campaign statement said. “Arab voters are heading en masse to the voting booth,” it warned.

The statement drew condemnation from the left and center, with accusations of racism behind the warning of Arab turnout.

On Tuesday afternoon, Netanyahu’s campaign issued a clarification. “What’s illegitimate is not Arabs voting as such, but the huge funds from overseas from leftist NGOs and foreign governments bringing them en masse to the polling stations in an organized fashion — and thus warping the actual wishes of the electorate of Israel’s citizens writ large in favor of the left.”

‘Turnout in Arab sector not so good’

Our Arab affairs reporter, Elhanan Miller, tours Arab communities in northern Israel on Election Day.

“Turnout in the Arab sector is not so good,” said councillor Rawan Abu Leil, 21, from the village of Ein Mahel. “We’re encouraging people to vote, no matter for what party.״

At the entrance to Nazareth, a group belonging to the Zionist youth movement Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed hold up a sign reading "I vote, therefore I exist." March 17, 2015. (Elhanan Miller)

At the entrance to Nazareth, a group belonging to the Zionist youth movement Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed hold up a sign reading ‘I vote, therefore I exist.’ March 17, 2015. (Elhanan Miller)

Shas sticks with supernatural campaign

The Shas campaign isn’t holding back. It’s pushing its greatest political asset, its followers spiritual world, to the hilt on Election Day.

We’ve already reported on the business-card-sized slips that purport to quote the party’s deceased founder and spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef promising that anyone who votes Shas is guaranteed entrance into heaven.

This afternoon, voters began reporting receiving text messages containing the following message:

Maran [our master] the Rabbi Ovadia Yosef: “I do not forgive anyone who does not vote Shas, neither in this world nor in the next.”

Online betting sites favor Netanyahu for PM

Online betting sites show a distinctly pro-Netanyahu tilt, though the margins vary widely, according to a list compiled by Channel 2 television news.

Bettors on the Predictit site favor Netanyahu by 56 percent to 44, on the Hypermind site by 67% to 33%, and on the Predictwise predictions site by an even steeper 80% to 20%.

Election Committee bars PM’s press conference

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls a press conference for 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, just four hours before polls close on Election Day.

But the Yesh Atid and Zionist Union parties appeal to Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, who heads the Central Election Committee, to forbid the press conference.

Campaigning is forbidden on Election Day itself, and Joubran rules that a live press conference would constitute a campaign ad by default.

Likud has until 6:30 p.m. to appeal Joubran’s decision.

Far-right Yishai vows a vote for him helps PM

Eli Yishai, chairman of the far-right Yachad party, urged voters to help save his party from disappearing below the electoral threshold in the final hours of Election Day on Tuesday.

“The entire right carries the Yachad party on its shoulders. Help us ensure victory for [Benjamin] Netanyahu,” Yishai said in a statement.

While Netanyahu has spent the day frantically calling on right-wing voters to vote for his Likud party, which has fallen behind the center-left Zionist Union in the last published polls on Friday, Yishai insisted that only a vote for Yachad would ensure Likud victory.

“You have to understand,” Yishai told potential voters, “that without a strong Yachad Netanyahu won’t have a majority [of recommendations] to the president,” who, after elections, chooses which party leader to task with forming a coalition

Voter turnout hits 54.6% at 6 p.m.

Turnout at 6 p.m. hits 54.6 percent of eligible voters, 0.9 points below the number in 2013 at that hour.

Polls close throughout the country at 10 p.m.

In Internet video, PM blasts broadcast restrictions

“All day politicians have been speaking in the media,” Netanyahu protests.

Netanyahu had convened a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, but Israeli media was forbidden from broadcasting his appearance. Under Israeli election law, electioneering is not allowed on Election Day.

Netanyahu protests that left-wing politicians have been appearing in the media for much of the day.

“Tzipi [Livni], Boujie [Herzog], Yair [Lapid], representatives of the left, spoke in every possible studio and conducted flagrant electioneering,” he charges at the press conference, which was not broadcast in Israeli media, but a video was uploaded to Netanyahu’s Facebook page.

“The ‘Just not Bibi’ party doesn’t stop speaking in the media without anyone disturbing them. The only one they decided to prohibit from speaking in the media is me, the Likud prime minister,” he charges in the most direct accusation leveled by the prime minister against Central Election Committee chairman Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran, who made the decision to nix the broadcast.

“No one will shut us up,” he vows. “In a democratic state, even a Likud prime minister has the right to say his piece.”

Joubran himself has called for changing Israeli election law to lift or significantly ease the restrictions against electioneering, and has enforced the law relatively lightly over the course of the campaign. He has not initiated any cancellations of media appearances himself, but has enforced them when competing parties appealed against them. In the case of Netanyahu’s Tuesday press conference, Joubran responded to appeals from Yesh Atid and Zionist Union against the conference.

Joubran also forbade the airing of a Zionist Union press conference this afternoon.

Likud is losing, warns Netanyahu

The ruling Likud party is losing the election, Netanyahu warns.

In a press statement uploaded to his Facebook page — electioneering is forbidden in Israel’s formal media outlets on Election Day — Netanyahu paints a dire picture meant to mobilize right-wing voters to the polls.

“We’re in a fateful campaign. There is still a meaningful gap between Labor and Likud. The only way to shrink the gap is to go to the ballot box and vote ‘Mahal,'” Netanyahu says, a reference to the letter-based symbols on Likud’s election slip.

Netanyahu blames foreign government and left-wing NGOs for the left’s improved showing in this election.

“The gap between Labor and Likud is based primarily on foreign funds that flow in vast quantities to leftist NGOs. Its purpose is to replace a Likud government headed by me with a left government supported by the Arab list,” he says

Ayman Odeh, chair of the Arab Joint List, figures large in Netanyahu’s warning to the right.

“Ayman Odeh, who supports [Zionist Union leader Isaac] Herzog, has already said not only that I must be replaced, but that I should be put in prison for defending the citizens of Israel and the lives of IDF soldiers [during last summer’s Gaza war]…. A left government that depends on such a list will surrender at every step, on Jerusalem, the 1967 lines, on everything,” Netanyahu rails, “and therefore there’s an immense effort of leftist NGOs to mobilize voters from the left bloc, primarily in the Arab sector, and in areas where leftists vote.”

Netanyahu’s warnings of high Arab turnout have been roundly condemned by the left and center earlier throughout the day. He addresses the criticism in his statement.

“I want to clarify: there is nothing illegitimate with citizens voting, Jewish or Arab, as they see fit. What is not legitimate is the funding, the fact that money comes from abroad from NGOs and foreign governments, brings them en masse to the ballot box in an organized fashion, in favor of the left, gives undue power to the extremist Arab list, and weakens the right bloc in such a way that we will be unable to build a government — despite the fact that most citizens of Israel support the national camp and support me as the prime minister from Likud.”

Change is coming, exults Labor MK Shaffir

Zionist Union MK Stav Shaffir sounds a decidedly optimistic tone.

“We feel the change in every ballot box that we visit, and mainly in the frightened responses of Likud,” Shaffir says.

Netanyahu has warned multiple times in recent days that his Likud party was falling behind Zionist Union and could lose the election.

“Netanyahu has been in a frightful panic over the looming moment in which he will have to leave his seat, and is not above any measure or any lie or fear-mongering” to prevent that, she charges.

She slams Netanyahu’s statement earlier today in which the PM warned his supporters that Arab turnout was unexpectedly high. “A prime minister who comes out against voting in democratic elections — who has heard of such a thing?”

Arab turnout 12 points behind Jewish – report

Arab turnout as of 6 p.m. reaches 45%, according to Channel 2, over nine points behind the overall turnout — and some 12 points behind Jewish turnout.

Arab turnout, or warnings against it, form the main message on the right on Election Day.

Foreign funding and “leftist NGOs” are driving high Arab turnout in order to topple Likud, Netanyahu has warned multiple times today.

Dramatic election photos from Reuters

Reuters is outdoing itself with stunning photos of Israelis voting on Tuesday.

Voter fraud reports trickle in

At least 51 police investigations are open today over suspicions of voter fraud.

The cases include impersonating other voters, falsifying ballots and stealing party slips.

Out of nearly 800 fraud accusations made to police today, one suspect is already under arrest and 23 are being held for investigation.

In Safed, a 24-year-old resident arrives at the polling booth and discovers he is already listed as having voted.

In Umm al-Fahm, one senior polling station coordinator is arrested after he is allegedly seen placing multiple envelopes into the ballot box.

Voter turnout reaches 65.7% at 8 p.m.

Voter turnout reaches 65.7% at 8 p.m., two hours before polls close in the large cities.

Polls already closed in small towns and villages at 7 p.m.

The figure marks an uptick of 2 percentage points from the same hour on Election Day in 2013, and in fact is higher than at the same hour in any election since 1999.

Jewish Home sees itself falling below 10 seats

Leaks from the Jewish Home party today suggest that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign to pull voters from his right flank may be working.

The party, which polled at 12 seats and more in the final polls of the election published last Friday, is at risk of dropping below 10 seats.

“We must not let religious Zionism fall,” warns the party’s leader Naftali Bennett.

Bennett chastises Netanyahu’s campaign to draw voters from his party, saying it risked shrinking “the size of the bloc. I hope in the two hours left that people go and vote,” he concludes.

The publication of polls is not allowed, but parties are allowed to conduct them. It is not clear if the warnings flowing from Jewish Home are based on actual polling data or not.

Results may not be known till Friday — Knesset speaker

Knesset speaker and Likud lawmaker Yuli Edelstein says we won’t know the results of today’s election before Friday, because “it’s very close.”

It won’t be clear until the final official count is published Thursday which parties have even passed the 3.25% electoral threshold, he adds.

“There was no real discussion of the issues,” Edelstein laments of the campaign.

— Raphael Ahren

Yesh Atid revels in avoiding ‘us or them’ talk

It’s still empty at Hangar 11 in the Tel Aviv Port, where Yesh Atid will be gathering at 10 p.m., and there’s a faint scent of beer from the parties that are held here most nights.

Yet Yair Zivan, who handles international media for the centrist party, says he’s sure the party atmosphere will prevail tonight.

“We had 15,000 activists [canvassing] across the country today, from north to south,” Zivan says. “There was almost no voting booth without someone there, we’ve spoken to hundreds of thousands of people.”

Now, in the final moments before the polls close, activists are munching on McDonald’s fries and nervously smoking cigarettes.

“We’ve run the most positive campaign of all the parties, with a real focus on policy,” Zivan says. “We’re trying to raise the level of conversation past ‘us or them,’ and whatever happens tonight, Yesh Atid is a party for the long term.”

— Jessica Steinberg

Kingmaker Kahlon revels in selfies

Moshe Kahlon, head of the Kulanu party, makes his last campaign stop before the polls close.

“Our people are gaining energy,” the candidate says at the Rogazin-Bialik Campus in south Tel Aviv. “As time goes by they are getting stronger.”

Moshe Kahlon poses with volunteers of his Kulanu party in South Tel Aviv on Mar. 17, 2015. Kahlon traveled up and down Israel's coast, rallying support before the polls close. (photo credit: Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Moshe Kahlon poses with volunteers of his Kulanu party in South Tel Aviv on Mar. 17, 2015. Kahlon traveled up and down Israel’s coast, rallying support before the polls close. (photo credit: Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Volunteers and voters swarm around the smiling but tired politician, hoping for the latest in election day fashion: a politician-accompanied selfie.

“I love it,” Kahlon says of the constant picture-taking, “I don’t know about others, but I enjoy it.”

Kahlon obliges his supporters as his handlers try in vain to rush him along. The center-right party head even takes the time to have a jocular conversation with a volunteer from the staunchly left Meretz party.

“That’s why I’m in public life,” he says.

Kahlon, who was a part of the Likud party until two years ago, is expected to draw right-wing support away from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For this reason Kahlon’s centrist party is considered pivotal in the elections, and he is seen as something of a kingmaker.

On Saturday and Sunday, Netanyahu said in several interviews that he would make Kahlon finance minister, in a bid to woo the Kulanu head to his side.

Moshe Kahlon, the Kulanu party leader, takes photographs with supporters before the polls close in South Tel Aviv on Mar. 17, 2015. (Photo credit: Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Moshe Kahlon, the Kulanu party leader, takes photographs with supporters before the polls close in South Tel Aviv on Mar. 17, 2015. (Photo credit: Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

But Kahlon,a former Likud minister, on Sunday morning rebuffed the advance, saying that Netanyahu’s promise couldn’t be trusted.

Kahlon has thus far refused to recommend either Netanyahu or Zionist Union rival Isaac Herzog for prime minister after the Tuesday vote, a move that would give either candidate an easier chance at forming a coalition.

— Judah Ari Gross

Prisoner turnout reaches 82%

Ballot boxes in Israel’s prisons close at 8 p.m.

Final voter turnout is now reported at 81.74% of Israel’s incarcerated.

27-27 tie for Likud, Zionist Union in Ch. 10 exit poll

Shocking rally for Netanyahu’s Likud in Channel 10 and Channel 2 exit polls.

Channel 10 gives the two parties 27-27, while Channel 2 finds 27-28 in favor of Likud.

Likud rallies, Yachad falls away

The Channel 10 exit poll is as follows:

Zionist Union – 27
Likud – 27
Kulanu – 10
Joint List – 13
Jewish Home – 8
Yesh Atid – 11
Shas – 7
UTJ – 7
Meretz – 5
Yisrael Beytenu – 5

The bottom line: with Kulanu and UTJ, Netanyahu has a right-wing coalition.

Exit polls in graphs

Channel 2 exit poll, March 17, 2015.

Channel 2 exit poll, March 17, 2015.

Channel 10 exit poll, March 17, 2015.

Channel 10 exit poll, March 17, 2015.

Channel 1 exit poll, March 17, 2015.

Channel 1 exit poll, March 17, 2015.

An easy right-wing coalition is within reach

According to the major exit polls, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is within easy reach of a right-wing coalition.

Likud, Jewish Home, Yisrael Beytenu, Shas — all of which are essentially committed to backing Netanyahu for premier — come to 48 seats.

If Netanyahu entices Kulanu and United Torah Judaism, likely an easy bargain to make, they will help him over the top with 63 seats — according to Channel 2’s poll.

The same coalition reaches 64 seats in both Channel 10’s and Channel 1’s exit polls.

The race is on for claiming the victory

Zionist Union’s Shelly Yachimovich is trying to claim in a Channel 2 interview that there’s still room for a left-wing government, based on the Arab list and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu.

But the stark fact is Netanyahu’s natural coalition is much larger, according to exit polls.

To seal the consciousness of a Netanyahu victory, Netanyahu has already called Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett in the last few minutes, and is slated to call Avigdor Liberman in the coming minutes.

The call to Moshe Kahlon could be among his last. Kahlon will take some convincing. His 10-seat showing makes him a decisive factor in the new coalition, and his demand was already clear in the campaign: to be finance minister.

Livni, Herzog meet; no word yet on left’s response

Zionist Union’s two leaders, Tzipi Livni and Isaac Herzog, are meeting in the minutes following the publication of exit polls. A statement may be imminent.

Netanyahu starts flurry of coalition calls

Netanyahu isn’t waiting to let anyone undermine his almost certain victory.

In the minutes following the publication of exit polls, he has been calling leaders of Jewish Home, Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu, and a meeting is being arranged with Shas’s Aryeh Deri, according to reports.

UTJ tells Netanyahu to wait till tomorrow

United Torah Judaism is playing coy with Netanyahu as he tries to quickly assemble a coalition following the publication of exit polls.

Their future in the coalition will be decided tomorrow by the party’s Council of Torah Sages, the party reportedly told the Likud.

Uncertainty at Zionist Union HQ

Loud music pumps through the sparsely filled stadium in Tel Aviv where Zionist Union set up its election night headquarters as the first exit polls are shown on the screen.

The equivocal results, showing a near even result, spark small circles of celebration and plenty of uncertainty among supporters.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, a Reform Jewish Leader who placed low on the party list, tells The Times of Israel that a tie “still holds the dynamics of change” and that he believes Zionist Union head Isaac Herzog will be asked to assemble the next government.

— Mitch Ginsburg

Kulanu supporters hail results

As the television exit polls come, a reserved enthusiasm sweeps through the small crowd at the Kulanu party’s rally in northern Tel Aviv.

Michael Oren, number four on the list, watches the screens as the television exit polls are announced, eyes flitting between the channels to see how his party did.

And then a cheer ripples through the small crowd gathered in support of leader Moshe Kahlon. “Hoo hah! Who’s that coming?! The next finance minister!”

Michael Oren, number four on the Kulanu party's list, applauds as exit polls show his party is sleighted to receive between nine and ten seats in the 20th Knesset on Mar. 17, 2015. (Photo credit: Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Michael Oren, number four on the Kulanu party’s list, applauds as exit polls show his party is slated to win nine or ten seats in the 20th Knesset on Mar. 17, 2015. (Photo credit: Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

— Judah Ari Gross

Likud supporters celebrate ‘amazing victory’

At Likud campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv, activists celebrate the apparent win.

“It’s an amazing victory,” one party activist says, adding that despite the neck-to-neck results, the right-wing camp won. “There’s no such thing as a left-wing government.”

Despite the feeling of victory, however, cheers of “Bibi, Bibi” last only a few seconds, as the party officials and activists present wait for the entrance of the prime minister.

— Raphael Ahren

Joint List chief confident party will win 14 seats

Ayman Odeh, head of the Arab Joint List, comments in Nazareth headquarters on exit polls:

“I’m confident we will reach 14 seats in the final tally,” he says. “I thank [Benjamin] Netanyahu for causing Arabs to vote by using them to threaten the public”

The prime minister had rallied voters hours before the polls closed by warning of a high voter turnout among Arabs.

Elhanan Miller

Bennett sounds upbeat tone despite fall to 8 seats

Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett sounded a decidedly upbeat tone, despite the party’s collapse in the exit polls. From a high of 17 seats in polls a couple of months ago, the party took just 8 seats in exit polls today.

“This is a great night for the people of Israel,” Bennett insisted to Channel 2. “The right-wing camp won.”

“I’m very glad the national camp won. The people chose right very clearly,” affirms the party’s number two, Ayelet Shaked.

Meretz head urges no unity government

Zahava Gal-on insists Zionist Union should not join a unity government with Netanyahu.

Arab Joint List is third-largest in polls

The Arab Joint List came in third place in two of three exit polls, with 13 seats. It tied Yesh Atid at 12 in Channel 1’s poll.

The big question for the new Arab configuration is whether a slate composed of Palestinian nationalists, Muslim movements and atheist socialists can hold together for very long in the new Knesset.

Pie chart of Knesset seats based on exit polls

A projected breakdown of Knesset seats based on an average of TV exit polls published Tuesday night, March 17, 2015

A projected breakdown of Knesset seats based on an average of TV exit polls published Tuesday night, March 17, 2015

Yesh Atid’s 12 seats ‘an accomplishment,’ says MK

MK Micky Levy is Yesh Atid’s first elected official to arrive at the party’s election night headquarters at Hangar 11 in the Tel Aviv Port. At  number 11 on a list that got 12 seats in exit polls, the former head of the Jerusalem Police appears to have made it into another Knesset.

“It’s an accomplishment, because they were talking about just seven seats a few months ago,” says Levy.

When asked how he felt about being in the opposition, Levy says he isn’t concerned.

“I have no problem being in the opposition. I can fight with a knife in my teeth.”

— Jessica Steinberg

‘The religious Zionists carried the day,’ says Bennett

Naftali Bennett hints that he is proud of national-religious voters who abandoned him for Netanyahu, thus securing Netanyahu’s victory over Herzog.

“I was asked if I’m disappointed in our public, in the national-religious public,” Naftali Bennett tells his supporters in a post-exit poll speech, after coming in at a disappointing eight seats.

“And I tell you, the opposite. I’m proud of religious Zionism, because it’s a truly ideological public. It is called to settlement, and it comes through. It is called to national and social missions, and it comes through. This time it was called to a political mission, and it came through big time. Our public, as is its wont, took hold of the stretcher and carried the day.”

“The eternal people isn’t afraid of a long road,” he insists. “We’re running long distance. We are not afraid, and we don’t lower our heads. We raise our heads higher and higher. We love the people of Israel, the land of Israel. We, all of us, love the Torah of Israel and the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces,” he says to applause.

Likud supporters celebrate

TEL AVIV — “You’re the bomb,” the popular song with which Israeli pop star Sarit Hadad once famously serenaded Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a campaign event, blasts through the speakers at Likud’s campaign headquarters.

Thousands of white voting slips with the Likud’s symbol — Machal — are spread out on the floor and the whole event has something of a wedding vibe.

As activists wave blue Likud flags and MKs happily give interviews to the dozens of reporters in the hall, Netanyahu is said to have started making his way to Tel Aviv for his expected victory speech.

Likud supporters at party HQ in Tel Aviv, Tuesday night, March 17, 2015 (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Likud supporters at party HQ in Tel Aviv, Tuesday night, March 17, 2015 (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

— Raphael Ahren

Kahlon also tells Netanyahu to wait

Moshe Kahlon of Kulanu, like the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism, tells Netanyahu he will not decide who to support for premier until the final official results are published on Thursday.

He reportedly told the same to Isaac Herzog, who is frantically trying to put together a Netanyahu-blocking coalition that might force a unity government.

Final turnout hits 71.8%, highest since 1999

Final voter turnout rises to 71.8%, according to final Central Election Committee data, higher than in the past five elections. It marks a five-point rise from 2013’s 66.6%.

Race remains a ‘tie,’ insists Yadlin

The Zionist Union’s candidate for defense minister, Amos Yadlin, insists the left and right are “tied” in the wake of tonight’s exit polls.

“I think this is a major achievement for Zionist Union. No poll gave us 27 mandates,” which the party gets in the polls. “I think you have to remember where Labor was three months ago, at 14 mandates, and where it is today.”

“Nothing is finished,” Yadlin insists. “Meretz passed the electoral threshold nicely and Yachad didn’t pass the threshold,” he notes, “so let’s wait for the final results. This is a tie, and the keys are in Moshe Kahlon’s hands,” he concludes.

Arab list chief hails ‘historic moment’

Arab Joint List candidates face the crowd at a post-election event in Umm Al-Fahm, Tuesday, March 17, 2015 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

Arab Joint List candidates face the crowd at a post-election event in Umm Al-Fahm, Tuesday, March 17, 2015 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

UMM AL-FAHM — “We are in a historic moment,” Arab Joint List leader Ayman Odeh tells supporters at the party’s post-election event.

“We have the highest Arab voting rates since 1999,” he adds.

“We will block Netanyahu from forming the government.”

— Elhanan Miller

Likud not yet ruling out unity with Herzog

TEL AVIV — “I don’t believe in a unity government,” future Likud MK Yoav Kish tells The Times of Israel. “I hope Moshe Kahlon will come home and then we’ll have a coalition.”

Deputy Minister Ofir Akunis, however, is not so quick to dismiss the possibility of a joint government with the Zionist Union.

“I can neither exclude nor confirm it,” he tells reporters when asked about this scenario. “We will have to wait for the final result. The votes of the soldiers still need to be counted. I hope they will benefit us, the national camp, and when Benjamin Netanyahu receives the mandate [from President Reuven Rivlin] to build a coalition — then we will start the coalition negotiations.”

— Raphael Ahren

Why Netanyahu likely won the election

Isaac Herzog has no stable coalition in tonight’s exit polls, so Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory is almost complete.

Zionist Union lost the ability to force a unity government. Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition of Likud, Jewish Home, Yisrael Beytenu, Kulanu and the ultra-Orthodox parties come to a majority of 63. The only hope that the Labor party (which leads the Zionist Union list) has to leave the opposition after 14 years is if Netanyahu, Herzog and Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon (or other party leaders with similar numbers of seats) all want a unity government. Why would Netanyahu share power if he doesn’t have to? And why would Kahlon work toward a unity government in which his own party’s influence would be dramatically diluted?

Herzog’s last hopes lie with the remaining unknowns: the gaps between tonight’s exit poll results and the official results that will be published Thursday; the votes of soldiers, prisoners and diplomats; the vote-sharing agreements that might give Labor another seat or take away one from Likud (or vice versa, of course). If all those go dramatically in Herzog’s favor, a very unlikely scenario, then things might yet be different.

Liberman praises party for surviving

“No other party would have survived this campaign,” Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman tells party supporters tonight. “This wasn’t a political campaign only. We were met with an attempted assassination of an entire political party by forces from outside the political system, from the media,” he charges. “Many forces tried to destroy an entire party, but failed.”

Liberman is referring to a police corruption investigation that embroiled multiple Yisrael Beytenu officials in December.

Asked if he would recommend Netanyahu for premier, Liberman declines to answer.

Netanyahu declares victory

“Against all odds: a great victory for Likud. A major victory for the people of Israel,” exults the PM on Facebook.

Everyone awaits word from Kulanu’s Kahlon

TEL AVIV — Almost an hour and a half after initial exit polls were announced, Kulanu party headquarters remain half-empty, and the enthusiasm feels forced.

“Most of the activists are out in the rest of the country,” a Kahlon party worker says.

Party leader Moshe Kahlon has yet to arrive, and his absence only contributes to the general lethargy.

Kulanu party headquarters in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, March 17, 2015 (photo credit: Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Kulanu party headquarters in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, March 17, 2015 (photo credit: Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The last surveys announced before Israelis cast their ballots predicted Kulanu would receive nine seats, and exit polls show the party may do slightly better; according to most they will receive 10, making Kahlon kingmaker ahead of coalition talks.

And the atmosphere of the election headquarters reflects that: the upstart party met its expectations, but did not shatter them. Everyone’s happy, but no one’s ecstatic.

So the dozens of party supporters must resort to schadenfreude.

“Channel 2 news is now reporting that Yesh Atid went down to 11 seats from the 13 they originally predicted,” a supporter tells the crowd.

“But we went to ten! It’s only going up!”

— Judah Ari Gross

Yachad enters Knesset in Ch. 1 exit poll

Earlier this evening, all three major exit polls placed the far-right Yachad party firmly below the 3.25% threshold for getting into the Knesset.

In the last few minutes, Channel 1 updated its exit poll to show that Yachad has just barely squeaked into the Knesset.

Rivlin still said to favor unity government

President Reuven Rivlin, according to Haaretz, continues to favor a unity government.

“I am convinced that only a unity government can prevent the rapid disintegration of Israel’s democracy and new elections in the near future,” Rivlin reportedly says.

Election c’tee begins publishing real results

The Central Elections Committee has begun to publish the real vote count on its website.

The results show real votes and percentages, but as of midnight Tuesday only about 80,000 votes have been reported out of an estimated 4.2 million ballots cast.

PA to resume ICC suit with Netanyahu victory

Palestinian Authority official Saeb Erekat threatens to renew Palestinian efforts to sue Israel in the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

“It is clear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will form the next government, so we say clearly that we will go to the International Criminal Court in the Hague and we will speed up, pursue and intensify” all diplomatic efforts, Erekat tells AFP.

36 new MKs among 120 elected lawmakers

A Channel 2 tally concludes that the new Knesset will see 36 brand-new Knesset members, including many in Likud and Kulanu’s entire list except party leader Moshe Kahlon himself.

‘Results aren’t final, I intend to fight to form gov’t,’ says Herzog

Isaac Herzog insists Zionist Union’s fate is not yet sealed by tonight’s exit polls.

“We achieved something extraordinary today,” he tells cheering supporters. “Since the elections of 1992, the election of Yitzhak Rabin, may his memory be blessed, we haven’t achieved such a result. This result enables us to return to power, and since we’re going to wait for the true results — every result right now is an exit poll — everything is still open.”

Herzog says he “spoke today with every relevant party leader. We don’t know the final results because some parties are on the edge of the electoral threshold. I intend to make every effort to put together a socially conscious government for Israel, a good government, a government that returns Israel to be a Jewish and democratic state, a socially aware country that strives for peace with our neighbors. I call on all the relevant factions to unite behind me for a government of reconciliation for Israel.”

He tells supporters: “There won’t be any decisions taken tonight. Everyone can go to sleep. You gave your heart and soul. Thank you.”

‘We will make every effort to form gov’t,’ says Livni

Tzipi Livni follows Herzog at Zionist Union headquarters.

“We commit to the Israeli public to make every effort to establish a government based on our path, a government headed by Herzog,” she promises cheering supporters, “because our path is right, our diplomatic and defense and social path, the path that puts the country in the center and not our own jobs.”

Yesh Atid ‘can no longer be ignored,’ says Lapid

“Yesh Atid is a force that can no longer be ignored in Israeli politics,” party leader Yair Lapid tells supporters tonight.

“There is an understanding in the political system that we’re here to stay for many years. We came to change things. Tomorrow morning we’re going to continue from the point where we were stopped. We will continue to battle the corruption and the extortion, and the politics of division and tribalism where everyone cares only for themselves. Instead, we’ll continue to present a real vision for the country, a vision of an exemplary society whose Judaism is embracing and not divisive, whose economy works for the middle class and the middle class works for the weaker segments in society.”

He adds in a clear reference to his campaign slogan: “We’re here to fight for you, to fight with you. We’re fighting for our country, and we have no intention of giving up.”

Obama can work with whoever wins election, White House says

US President Barack Obama “remains committed to working very closely with the winner of the ongoing elections to cement and further deepen the strong relationship between the United States and Israel, and the president is confident that he can do that with whomever the Israeli people choose.”

So says White House press secretary Josh Earnest in Washington, according to The New York Times.

Netanyahu speech to Likud supporters to begin soon

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to deliver his speech to his party supporters imminently.

President’s Office denies Rivlin favors unity government

President Reuven Rivlin’s office denies reports that the president has said he favors a unity government after today’s election.

“All we have said is that we favor the formation of a government as quickly as possible,” a President’s Residence official says.

Netanyahu hints at rejection of unity government

Netanyahu exults in his apparent election victory tonight.

“Against all odds, we achieved a great victory for Likud. We achieved a great victory for our people,” he tells jubilant supporters.

“I’m proud of the people of Israel, that in the moment of truth they knew how to separate the important from the trivial, and to stand for what’s important, for a real defense, a responsible economy, and a socially conscious economy that we’re committed to…. I can tell you with confidence that we stand before diplomatic and defense challenges, and economic and social challenges. We promised to act on the cost of housing, and we’re going to do it.”

He seems to delicately backtrack on some of the rhetoric of the past couple days that warned about Arab turnout and “foreign governments” leading to Likud’s fall.

His next government’s priorities, he says, “are important to every family, every young couple, every soldier, every citizen of Israel, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. You are all important, and you are all important to me.”

And he hints at his rejection of any proposed unity government with Zionist Union.

“And now we must establish a strong, stable government that will take care of the security and welfare of all Israel’s citizens,” he says, sparking fear among Likud members present that he may announce a unity government.

“We don’t want unity!” the activists began to shout, but their fears were soon calmed.

“I phoned all leaders of parties of the national camp [a Hebrew term for the right wing] and called on them to join me to establish a government without delay. Reality doesn’t take a break. The citizens of Israel expect us to form a responsible leadership that will work for them,” he announces.

Kahlon praises party’s ‘historic’ campaign

Moshe Kahlon emphasizes his party’s economic message in his post-election speech.

“This election campaign is historic. This was the first socially aware election campaign since 1977, thanks to Kulanu,” he tells supporters in Givat Olga.

“For this event it was worth establishing a party,” Kahlon asserts.

And he concludes with a direct jab at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security-focused campaign. “They tried to deflect us to the left or right, to IS or Iran, but our lives here are not less important,” Kahlon says.

Election Day ends as nation awaits final results

The election count is continuing into the night. With some 30% of votes counted, Likud is ahead of National Union, and you can follow the count here, but more definitive results should be emerging by morning.

We’re closing today’s dramatic Election Day liveblog. But as ever, the site continues to update 24/7, and we’ll be liveblogging again tomorrow.

Meretz head set to quit if party sinks below 5

Meretz party leader Zahava Gal-on says she’ll resign from her position if the party receives less than five seats.

Right now, Meretz is set to receive four mandates, but the count is ongoing.

Meretz MK Zahava Gal-On. December 25, 2013. (Photo credit: Flash 90)

Meretz MK Zahava Gal-On. December 25, 2013. (Photo credit: Flash 90)