Israelis headed to the polls Tuesday morning for the second time this year, with party leaders taking the opportunity to stump for votes as they slipped their ballots into polling boxes.
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, voting with his wife Sara, namechecked US President Donald Trump as he urged citizens to go to the polls.
“President Trump said yesterday that the vote will be close. It will be close, so go and vote,” he said.
His chief challenger, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, voting in his hometown of Rosh Ha’ayin, asked that voters choose change, after 10 years of Netanyahu at the helm.
“We will succeed in bringing hope. We will succeed in bringing change, without corruption and without extremism, all together,” he said.
The vote is the second in months, an unprecedented rerun election after Netanyahu failed to form a coalition following a vote in April. It draws to a close a bitter campaign that saw both the right-wing Likud and centrist Blue and White alliance sling mud at each other.
Rivals have accused Netanyahu of using his campaign to push for immunity from prosecution hanging over his head and running roughshod over the judicial system.
Netanyahu has charged Blue and White with being soft on security and seeking an alliance with Arab parties seen by some as a third rail in Israeli politics.
Both will need the support of smaller parties to form a coalition, according to polls, and may be forced to reach across the aisle or seek a unity coalition.
Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman, who has vowed to force a unity government that excludes ultra-Orthodox parties, repeated his vow that the elections will result in a secular unity government and that there will not be a third round of elections.
“We will set up a government without the ultra-Orthodox. There will be no third elections. There will certainly not be 61 votes to dissolve the Knesset,” Liberman said as he voted in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim, where he lives.
After April’s elections, Liberman refused to join a government led by Netanyahu unless a bill formalizing exemptions to mandatory military service for yeshiva students was passed as is, a demand flatly rejected by the premier’s ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. That impasse helped trigger the new elections.
President Reuven Rivlin — who once the votes are in formally mandates the best-placed candidate with forming a coalition, but has has limited powers — vowed to prevent a third round of elections. “I will do everything I can to prevent further elections and to establish a government quickly,” Rivlin said as he cast his vote in Jerusalem.
Labor-Gesher chief Amir Peretz, whose party is hovering at around five seats in polls, even less than its current record-low of six, cast his vote in his hometown of Sderot and warned that if his party does badly and falls below the 3.25% threshold for Knesset representation, Netanyahu will form a coalition that will give him immunity from prosecution on possible corruption charges in the coming months.
“It’s a close fight. Every vote will make a difference. If Labor-Gesher does well, there will be an upheaval today. If Labor-Gesher does not do well, Netanyahu will get a government of immunity,” Peretz said. “It’s a close fight, every vote counts. I call on Labor-Gesher voters to go out and vote for the long-awaited upheaval.”
Exit polls come out once the polling stations close at 10 p.m., with official results expected to start trickling in throughout the night and into Wednesday morning.
The final official results are only due on September 25, giving way to weeks or even months of coalition wrangling.
Political pundits say that voter turnout will be a key factor in the election amid fears of public apathy over the redo.
However, election officials said initial turnout was slightly higher than April’s vote, with 15% casting ballots as of 10 a.m.
At Tel Aviv’s Frishman Beach, the Geula family from Nes Ziona were divided by gender over who they were voting for, with the men supporting Netanyahu’s Likud and the women planning to vote for Blue and White later today.
“They pretend that it’s a gender thing, but look there are no women at the top of Gantz’s list,” said Shai.
“There are barely any women on Bibi’s list either. Just [Culture Minister] Miri Regev, and she’s nuts!” his wife, who is also named Miri, retorted.
In the Arab town of Sakhnin in northern Israel, residents trickled into ballot booths, despite what many have described as voter suppression efforts by the Likud party.
“I wasn’t scared to come here. It is my right to vote, and Netanyahu will not stop me from doing that,” said Hamad Khalailah, a 28-year-old lawyer, who said he voted for the Joint List, an alliance of the four largest Arab-majority parties.
In Jerusalem, the polls at the Tali Geulim school in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood were bustling with young families and older long-time residents.
“Vote ‘tet-bet,’ they’re the best,” a young activist said outside the voting place, using the initials for the right-wing Yamina party.
“Of course!” a yarmulke-wearing man with two young children responded.
Yamina chair Ayelet Shaked told activists in Tel Aviv that Netanyahu was trying to scare right-wing voters into switching allegiance from her faction to Likud.
“We are at war,” Shaked said. “You have to work hard at the polling stations and convince all right-wingers to vote for us. It will be tough due to Netanyahu’s ‘gevalt’ campaign trying to hurt us,” she added, referring to the prime minister’s traditional last-minute scare tactics.
While the election is seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership, Likud and Blue and White are only two of the total 30 parties that are competing in the unprecedented repeat election. Only nine or ten parties at most, however, are expected to clear the 3.25% threshold and enter the Knesset.
After April’s national vote, Netanyahu, who in July became Israel’s longest serving prime minister, came close to losing power when his Likud party along with its right-wing and religious allies failed to form a coalition.
Rather than allow another candidate to have a shot at doing so, he opted for a second election by calling on the Knesset to dissolve itself and is now again locked in a tough race against Blue and White.
This time, surveys have shown Blue and White neck and neck or slightly ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud, but with Netanyahu edging toward being able to muster a majority coalition of right-wing parties and retain his office.
Netanyahu has avoided committing to returning the mandate to form a government to Rivlin if he again fails to build a ruling coalition.
Hanging over Netanyahu is a likely indictment in three corruption cases, including one charge of bribery, pending a hearing. While trying to form a government after April’s vote, Netanyahu was reported to have conditioned, or tacitly linked, entry to the post-election coalition on support for immunity arrangements, including possible new legislation, that would shelter him from prosecution as long as he remains in office.
Netanyahu has denied seeking such legislation but has refused to rule out seeking parliamentary immunity from his coalition partners should he be given the mandate to form a government again.
Confounding Rivlin’s decision on who to task with forming a coalition, Netanyahu is set to face a pre-indictment hearing with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on October 2, the final day that the president must choose a candidate for prime minister.
Election Day is a legal holiday and has become an opportunity for Israelis to spend time at the beach, hold family barbecues in national parks, and hike trails from the north to the south — as well as to vote, of course.
Soldiers, foreign envoys, prisoners and hospitalized patients are the only Israelis allowed to cast ballots away from the polling station assigned to their place of residence.