Over 12,000 polling stations opened across the country on Tuesday morning to allow around 6.8 million eligible Israeli voters to cast their ballots, as the nation went to the polls for the fifth time in under four years.
Central Elections Committee director general Orly Ades announced that as of 4 p.m., some 47.5 percent of eligible voters had voted, the highest figure at that time point seen since 1999.
In comparison, 42.3% of the public had voted by this time in the last election, held in March 2021.
But the voting process wasn’t going smoothly everywhere. In Beit Shemesh, a polling station was closed and moved to a new location after extremists sprayed a foul-smelling liquid in an apparent attempt to discourage voters.
Elsewhere, leaders of the majority of political parties voted, while encouraging citizens to exercise their democratic right.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who started the day with a visit to the grave of his father, a noted cabinet minister and journalist, voted at the polling station near his Tel Aviv home.
“Go and vote today for the future of our children and the future of our country. Vote well and good luck to us all,” the premier said, invoking the name of his party Yesh Atid (“There is a future”).
Most polls, while unreliable, gave the bloc of current coalition parties, led by Lapid, 56 seats.
President Isaac Herzog, voting in Jerusalem, said that every voting slip would make an impact.
“It is an enormous privilege to participate in the process of free, clean and equal elections. Billions of people around the world do not enjoy this privilege,” he said.
“Without a shadow of a doubt, all votes have an impact. Anyone who thinks his or her vote does not matter is wrong,” Herzog added.
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu cast his ballot in Jerusalem, accompanied by his wife, Sara, and urged everyone to exercise their “great privilege.”
The opposition leader claimed to be worried about a high turnout in “left-wing” areas, but said he hoped to “end the day with a smile.”
Most surveys in recent days gave the Netanyahu-led bloc 60 seats, meaning the smallest shift in favor of the opposition leader could enable him to form a coalition and return to power, with the support of the far-right Religious Zionism party and the two Haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz called on voters to cast their ballots for the party they see as the most capable, rather than the largest. The National Unity party leader is considered a third potential prime ministerial candidate, after Lapid and Netanyahu.
“We do not want more incitement or more division. We want more unity, more security, more reconciliation between people,” he said, voting near his home in the central city of Rosh Ha’ayin.
“In my opinion, these elections are not about the big party, they are about the party that is most capable against incitement, against division, and in favor of unity,” Gantz said.
Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who is not running in the election and has not publicly backed any party or candidate, called for the formation of a national unity government.
“We will put slogans and hatred behind us, we will get to work on mending rifts and reconnecting, with God’s help, into a large and broad government — a unity government,” Bennett said in a statement.
MK Itamar Ben Gvir, whose far-right party is expected to make significant gains, cast his ballot in the southern West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, where he told reporters that a vote for him was a vote for a right-wing government led by Likud’s Netanyahu.
“With one ballot slip, you get [Likud chairman Benjamin] Netanyahu as prime minister along with a full-on right-wing government,” the extremist lawmaker said.
Meretz chief Zehava Galon said the election will determine whether liberal or extreme ideology will win out.
“These are the first elections in the country’s history [making a choice] between democracy and Kahanism,” she said at a Petah Tikva polling station. Galon has been an outspoken critic of Ben Gvir, a follower of the extremist late rabbi Meir Kahane.
According to Galon, Meretz is in an “emergency situation,” and may not cross the 3.25 percent vote threshold to enter Knesset, an outcome that would boost the right-wing bloc led by Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu and including Ben Gvir.
Shortly after voting in Tel Aviv, Labor party chief Merav Michaeli noted that a woman had been murdered in her Herzliya home hours earlier, and said that “this is what we’re fighting against every day and hour — our personal security everywhere, even at home. We won’t let up until this violence ends.”
Earlier, Michaeli called on voters to go to the polls, saying the election is “in our hands,” while expressing concern her party may fall below the Knesset threshold.
Balad leader Sami Abu Shehadeh cast his vote in Jaffa, and urged the public to vote for his Arab nationalist party to combat racism in Israel.
“The problem in Israel is not Netanyahu or Lapid, the problem is racism. That must be combated and that’s why people vote Balad,” he said.
All Israeli citizens age 18 and up on election day have the right to vote for their representatives in the 25th Knesset.
Immigrants who complete their citizenship registration at least 60 days before today are also eligible to vote, including about 45,000 new Israelis who arrived this year before the end of August.
Special polling booths are have been set up to help some citizens facing special barriers to vote, including soldiers, elderly citizens in care facilities and hospitalized patients.
There are also 414 special polling stations for voters required to be in quarantine following exposure to or infection with COVID-19.
Although official results are only due eight days after the election, final results are expected later this week.
However, Israelis may need to wait days, weeks, or possibly even months until they know if a government will be formed, and who will be in it.
Jacob Magid, Carrie Keller-Lynn and Jack Mukand contributed to this report.