Politicians vying for the public’s support in national elections wasted no time in heading to polling stations across the country as ballots opened Tuesday morning, making last-minute pitches for votes as three months of campaigning drew to a close.
Across the country, some 35.8 percent of eligible voters, or 2,266,430 Israelis, had cast ballots as of 2 p.m., according to election officials.
The turnout number was slightly down from 2015, when 36.6% had cast ballots by the same time. The figure did not represent a significant trend, Central Election Committee director Orly Ades said.
Most politicians cast their own ballots before noon, spending the rest of the day criss-crossing the country and stumping for votes.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, the main challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, promised a “new path” for Israel after casting his ballot in his hometown of Rosh Ha’ayin in central Israel.
“I’m happy to place myself at the service of the State of Israel,” the former IDF chief said. “I’m happy to stand for the good of the citizens on a new path. We shall respect democracy and call for a respectful and quiet day from all sides.”
“This is a day of hope. A day of unity. I am looking the people of Israel in the eyes and telling them — this change is possible. I offer myself as Israel’s prime minister and together, we will take this new path. I call out to all of you — let’s respect democracy and go vote.”
Gantz’s Blue and White party has inched ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud in polls. Netanyahu still appears to have the best chance of forming a coalition, though, with an assortment of small right-wing parties backing him.
Netanyahu and his wife Sara voted cast their ballots at a Jerusalem middle school late Tuesday morning where he called on supporters to reelect a right-wing government.
“[Voting] is a holy act, it’s the essence of democracy,” Netanyahu told supporters. “You must choose well, I can’t say [more],” apparently referring to a ruling against media appearances by candidates.
“If you don’t go out to vote, you’ll get [Yair] Lapid as your next prime minister,” he added.
President Reuven Rivlin also voted in Jerusalem, where he urged Israelis to exercise their right to vote. “It’s not the president or party leaders who will pick the next prime minister, it’s you who get to decide who your next prime minister will be,” he told reporters.
Blue and White number two Yair Lapid sounded an optimistic tone as he voted in Tel Aviv, saying the centrist alliance led by Gantz needs just “a tiny push” to win.
“We are nearly there. We need two more seats and we have won and it will be a historic day for Israel. Just a tiny push and we are there,” Lapid told supporters. “Benny Gantz said this week that we are a meter from victory; well, we are now a centimeter from victory.”
Labor leader Avi Gabbay predicted that the results of the elections would usher in a leftward shift in Israeli politics.
Speaking to journalists after casting his ballot in Jerusalem, Gabbay said that like his mother, a lifelong Likud voter, many citizens were leaving Israel’s main right-wing party in favor of Labor or Gantz’s Blue and White.
Gabbay urged voters to ignore the coalition calculations and machinations and just “go with your own conscience.”
“If your conscience says the Labor Party, if you believe in our team, if you believe in our way, then vote for Labor,” Gabbay added.
Voting in Ra’anana, New Right co-chair Education Minister Naftali Bennett urged voters not to believe Netanyahu’s “gevalt,” or cry of alarm, campaign to draw right-wing voters from smaller parties to the Likud.
“Do not believe the gevalts. Today the elections are about only one thing – will we support IDF soldiers and will Israel return to winning?” Bennett said. “I want to ask everyone to vote for the New Right. We are good people who do good for the people of Israel.”
Jewish Home leader Rabbi Rafi Peretz cast his ballot with four of his children in the Gaza-area moshav of Naveh. “Today we are determining how much influence the spirit of religious Zionism will have in the next Knesset,” he said.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders also made 11th hour appeals for voter turnout as they voted on Tuesday. United Torah Judaism leader Yaakov Litzman urged constituents to vote to help protect the Jewish character of the state, saying there was “no room for complacency.”
“We are voting on the Jewish nature of the country, for the Torah and to increase the power of ultra-Orthodox Judaism,” he said at a polling station in Jerusalem.
Shas party leader Aryeh Deri made a similar appeal, tweeting that Israel “needs a strong Shas to preserve the Jewish identity of the country, the Sabbath, tradition and the Jewish soul.”
His tweet included a picture of him putting a Shas ballot slip in an envelope, in apparent contravention of laws prohibiting campaigning inside polling booths.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. Tuesday morning, with exit polls expected at the end of the voting day, at 10 p.m. Some 6.4 million Israelis are eligible to cast their ballots at more than 10,000 stations. Thirty-nine parties are running, but no more than a dozen are expected to pass the 3.25 percent threshold to make into the Knesset.
Official results will begin streaming in early Wednesday, but it may take far longer for a final verdict to come through.