As many as 80 percent of Israel’s 5.9 million voters were casting ballots Tuesday for the 20th Knesset, as a heated campaign season that has become a referendum on the six-year rule of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached its climax.
Politicians and party activists were out in force as parties stumped for last-second votes among undecided Israelis, amid a flurry of politicking Monday night and into Tuesday.
The vote came about after Netanyahu, 65, called snap elections late last year as his fractious coalition government teetered on the brink of collapse.
This is Israel’s third election since 2009 and the biggest challenge for Netanyahu, who is seeking a third consecutive term.
The veteran right-wing leader is not certain to come first in the vote, with the final opinion polls Friday giving the center-left Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog a 3-4 seat lead over Netanyahu.
But the surveys also showed Netanyahu could have an advantage when it comes to piecing together a coalition with smaller allies from the right.
Netanyahu was among the first to cast his vote, dropping an envelope in a ballot box in Jerusalem just after 7 a.m. and vowing again that he won’t form a unity government with Herzog.
Most of the 10,372 polling stations opened at 7 a.m., and were slated to shut their doors at 10 p.m. Some voting stations in rural communities, hospitals, and prisons opened an hour later.
Exit polls come out once the polling stations close, with official results coming in through the night.
Tuesday is a legal holiday across the country, in order to make it easier for citizens to vote. Public transportation was running on its usual schedule, while police raised their alert level and deployed to ensure a safe voting process, Israel Radio reported.
There are 25 lists battling it out for seats, in a reflection of Israel’s diverse political map, but no more than 11 are forecast to enter the Knesset.
Under Israel’s proportional representation system, any party can enter parliament if it receives more than 3.25 percent of the vote, equal to about four seats out of 120.
By law, the final election results must be published within eight days of the vote, but a spokesman for the Central Elections Committee said the counting would be finished on Thursday afternoon.
Under Israel’s complex electoral system, the task of forming a new government does not automatically fall to the party with the largest number of votes, but to the party leader with the best chance of cobbling together a coalition with a parliamentary majority of 61.
Once the results are known, President Reuven Rivlin has seven days to entrust a party leader with the job of forming the next government.
“The president has made clear that Israel needs a government as soon as possible, and therefore is keen to begin consulting with the parties’ representatives as soon as possible,” a spokesman said.
With polls showing a close race, parties embarked on a series of last-minute maneuvers in an attempt to gain a late advantage.
Zionist Union’s Tzipi Livni announced Monday night that she would give up the potential rotation of the premiership with Herzog, an agreement the two made months ago when her Hatnua Party merged with his Labor Party to form the Zionist Union.
Netanyahu on Monday said a Palestinian state would not be established on his watch, should he be reelected, in part because he warned that any areas that came under Palestinian rule would subsequently become a Hamas stronghold.
In an attempt to woo voters away from smaller right-wing parties, he also vowed to increase construction in East Jerusalem, and said the city would never be divided.
Palestinian Authority chief negotiator Saeb Erekat responded to Netanyahu’s statement, saying that the prime minister “was doing everything in his power to bury the possibility of a two-state solution.” PA Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki said that Netanyahu exposed his “true face.”
Surveys published Friday, the last day they were allowed to come out before the election, showed Likud polling three-to-four seats behind Zionist Union, though still slightly better placed to form a coalition.
A number of smaller parties are also set to play the role of kingmaker or juggernaut, including Kulanu, led by defected Likud minister Moshe Kahlon, who is expected to snatch up to 10 seats and could swing to either side.
Polls also show a large showing for the Joint (Arab) List, a first-ever unity effort by Israel’s Arab parties that has thrust them into the spotlight for the first time.
Analysts have predicted that a stream of traditional Likud voters will try their chances with other right-wing or centrist parties this time around — in the belief that Netanyahu will be elected in any case because he heads the right-wing bloc.
In an effort to inveigle voters back, Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that a Likud victory is by no means assured and that casting votes for other parties aligned with Likud could in fact lead to a win by the Zionist Union and the left.
The hawkish Jewish Home party — which analysts believe is siphoning off disaffected right-leaning Likud voters — countered Netanyahu’s remarks, with party head Naftali Bennett quipping Sunday that “we need a large [right-wing] bloc, not a large [right-wing] party.”
Bennett, who played guitar at a right-wing rally Sunday night, was reportedly in emergency mode, sending a party-wide text message calling on activists to “stop the bleeding of votes back to Likud.”
Herzog too suspected a similar shift in voters away from the Zionist Union and toward Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party.
“We’re in competition with Yesh Atid. A vote for Yesh Atid, is a vote that will help Netanyahu,” the Zionist Union head told Channel 10 news Monday.
A prospective outcome in which the largest party is not chosen to form government is not without precedent.
Even though the centrist Kadima party under Livni won 28 seats in the 2009 elections, it was Netanyahu, with 27, who became prime minister, because he could rely on the support of Yisrael Beytenu and other right-wing parties.
Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.