Israelis headed to the polls Tuesday in a closely fought election that pits incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party against former army chief of staff Benny Gant’s Blue and White party, but also offers citizens a choice of 37 other diverse political parties.
Over 10,000 polling stations opened around the country from 7:00 a.m. to allow more than 6.3 million eligible voters to cast their ballots for the 21st Knesset, as a heated campaign season reached its climax.
Surveys have shown Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party neck and neck or slightly ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud, but with Netanyahu well-placed to muster a majority coalition of right-wing parties and retain his office.
Buoyed by a tight alliance with President Donald Trump but clouded by a series of looming corruption indictments, Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term in office that would make him Israel’s longest-serving leader, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion. He has served consecutively for the past 10 years, and was also prime minister from 1996-99.
Netanyahu faces his stiffest challenge in a decade from Gantz, a telegenic former military chief making his first foray into politics, who united his fledgling faction with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon’s Telem party to create Blue and White.
The party, which boasts three former IDF chiefs, has managed to mount a serious challenge to Netanyahu’s image as “Mr. Security,” but its members have often appeared to be political neophytes on the campaign trail compared to the veteran prime minister.
In the campaign’s final days, Netanyahu has again played to his base and veered to the right, vowing to annex Jewish West Bank settlements if reelected and embarking on a media blitz in which he portrayed himself as the underdog and frantically warned that “the right-wing government is in danger.”
Despite the expected majority for right-wing factions in the 120-seat Knesset, Netanyahu has pointed to recent comments by President Reuven Rivlin contemplating how to choose who should get the first shot at cobbling together a government.
Netanyahu has said the president would choose whichever party is the biggest if no prime ministerial candidate has a sufficient number of recommendations from other party leaders to assemble a coalition, and warned that Rivlin was just looking for an “excuse” to choose someone other than Netanyahu.
Hanging over Netanyahu is a likely indictment in three corruption cases, including one charge of bribery. Netanyahu has been rumored to be planning to condition, or tacitly link, entry to the post-election coalition he hopes to form on support for the so-called “French law,” which would shelter him from prosecution as long as he remains in office.
Netanyahu has denied seeking such legislation — he told Channel 12 on Monday: “There will be no French Law and no change to the immunity law. It’s all spin” — though many of his allies have touted it as a possibility.
Rivals have also begun to question a deal in which Netanyahu reportedly indirectly earned $4 million on a German submarine sale to Egypt by owning shares in one of the German manufacturer’s suppliers.
Gantz on Monday dismissed Netanyahu’s dire warnings about the right-wing, saying it was only Netanyahu’s hold on power that was in a precarious position.
“The right is not in danger, Netanyahu is in danger. It is not a security threat, but a legal one,” he told Army Radio.
Gantz said Israel needed to choose between “a direction of unity and connection and hope” and one of “extremism.” He vowed to form “a cabinet of reconciliation, with representatives from the [current] coalition and opposition.”
Netanyahu has claimed that Gantz and his colleagues lack the wisdom and tenacity to keep Israel safe in the treacherous Middle East, would fail to maintain his warm ties with world leaders, and would make dangerous concessions to the Palestinians. Gantz, who has shared Netanyahu’s campaign-trail refusal to endorse Palestinian statehood, has argued that Netanyahu has become corrupt in office, and lost sight of his obligation to serve the people, and that it is long past time for him to go.
While the elections may turn out to be a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership, Likud and Blue and White are only two of the record 39 parties that are competing in Israel’s first Knesset election since 2015. Up to 14 parties are expected to clear the 3.25% threshold and enter the Knesset.
There will be 10,720 booths set up across the country, including 190 in hospitals and 58 in prisons, for Israel’s 6,339,279 eligible voters.
TV exit polls will be broadcast after polls close at 10 p.m., and results will be counted overnight, with a fairly clear picture of the Knesset seats likely to emerge well before dawn.
It could be quickly obvious whether Netanyahu or Gantz have enough seats to form a majority coalition, or it could take longer before a clear election winner emerges, depending on how complex the coalition-building arithmetic proves. Israel has never had single-party government, and the next coalition, like the last one, seems certain to be a product of tense negotiations between about half-a-dozen parties that may take days or weeks.
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. All the counting is done manually, following the closing of the polling stations.
A legal holiday in order to make it easier for citizens to vote, Election Day 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.
With candidates traversing the country in a final push for voters, Netanyahu was expected to vote in Jerusalem at 10:30 a.m. after Gantz votes in his home town of Rosh Hayin at 8:00 a.m.
Most of the polling stations will open at 7 a.m., and are slated to shut their doors at 10 p.m. (some voting stations in rural communities, hospitals, and prisons open an hour later at 8 a.m.). Exit polls come out once the polling stations close, with official results expected to start trickling in throughout the night and into Wednesday morning.