Over 10,000 polling stations across Israel opened their doors at 7 a.m. Monday for the third time in a year as Israelis voted for the 23rd Knesset in the hopes of ending a political impasse that has wracked the country since late 2018.
After two inconclusive elections last year, opinion polls forecast another stalemate in a vote largely seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will go on trial on corruption charges just two weeks after Monday’s vote. His main challenger is Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party.
Across the country, 10,631 polling stations will be open from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. when exit polls are released, although some smaller polling stations are open from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.
Official results will trickle in overnight.
Twenty-nine parties are running, but no more than eight are likely to break the 3.25% electoral threshold needed to enter the Knesset.
The first party leader to vote Monday was Shas head Aryeh Deri, who cast his ballot in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Deri said he was “convinced that this is the last time,” However, he said that “if [the right wing bloc] does not get 61 seats, the other bloc will receive 61 and I have no doubt that a government led by Gantz will be formed together with Liberman, Meretz and the Labor Party, with the support of the Joint List.”
“This is clear to me beyond any doubt,” he said, encouraging voters to cast ballots for his Shas party, or others from the right-wing bloc.
Voting in his hometown of Rosh Ha’ayin, Blue and White Leader Benny Gantz encouraged citizens to take part in the democratic process.
“The last few days we have all been exposed to lies, recordings and a system that tries to pit us against each other,” he said. “Hopefully on this day we will begin the process of healing and begin living with each other..
“I urge everyone to go vote. Do not be drawn after lies,” Gantz said.
Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman, who polls say still holds the kingmaker role for any future coalition, cast his ballot in the West Bank settlement of Nokdim.
“I urge the silent majority to come out and vote,” said the staunchly secular right-wing politician. “Tonight will be an important decision between a strong Yisrael Beytenu and a religious state.”
There are 6,453,255 eligible voters in Israel, though analysts fear that frustration with the political system after seemingly unending deadlock may lower turnout.
Party leaders and others will reportedly spend the day attempting to push people to the polls in areas where they have highest support.
The Arab vote is seen to be crucial in this vote, with the Joint List polling at a record high 14-15 seats. Most, but not all of the predominantly Arab party recommended Gantz as prime minister after September’s deadlocked elections. On Saturday the party’s leader, Ayman Odeh, did not rule out recommending Blue and White leader for premier, but said he would have to “change direction” to regain the Joint List’s support.
Netanyahu, who was slammed during the last national elections in September for employing fiery rhetoric against Arabs, launched an effort in the final days of his reelection campaign to reach out to Arab Israelis.
Worries over the spread of the novel coronavirus have also seeped into the vote, with officials designating 16 specially equipped “isolation” voting booths for the 5,630 quarantined Israelis who may have come into contact with someone carrying the virus.
Officials said Monday that 10 Israelis had been diagnosed with the coronavirus, up from seven a day earlier, and there are concerns some could seek to use fears of the virus to suppress the votes for their opponents. Gantz in recent days has accused Netanyahu of planning such a campaign.
Police said Sunday they were setting up a special task force to deal with the situation.
The director-general of the Health Ministry on Sunday said Israelis should not hesitate to go out and vote in Monday’s national elections, and should not be deterred by the coronavirus.
Polling in the final days before Monday’s election showed support for Likud grow slightly, with the party possibly surpassing its rival Blue and White, though the surveys indicated it is still several seats short of achieving a 61-seat Knesset majority without the support of Yisrael Beytenu and Liberman.
Pundits and others have already begun to talk about a fourth vote in several months if the stalemate is not broken.
Netanyahu is seen as fighting for his political life, with indictments in three criminal cases hanging over his head. His opponents say he cannot lead the country while on trial, and it remains to be seen whether President Reuven Rivlin will even have the legal backing to task him with forming a government, if Likud and its partners do well enough at the polls.
Netanyahu has been charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals in which he is accused of accepting lavish gifts from wealthy friends or exchanging favors with powerful media moguls. He has denied all the charges.
With his trial set to start March 17, he is desperate to remain in office. As prime minister, Netanyahu can use his position to rally public support and lash out at what he claims is a vast conspiracy by police, overzealous prosecutors and a hostile media to oust him.
Israeli law allows a prime minister to remain in office even if charged with a crime, while requiring other public officials to resign once indicted.
The prime minister suffered a setback Sunday evening as the far-right Otzma Yehudit party declared it would not step down — potentially costing the right-wing bloc 1-2 seats.
If, as projected, Otzma Yehudit fails to pass the electoral threshold (3.25 percent of the vote, or four seats), any votes for it would be discounted. It has consistently been polling at around 1%-1.5%.
Polls have shown Netanyahu’s bloc at up to 58 seats compared to 55 for a centrist-left bloc lead by Gantz, leaving Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party, predicted to win at least seven seats, holding the balance of power.
Agencies contributed to this report.