President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday urged the public not to be disheartened by the fourth round of elections in just two years, and called on citizens to exercise their right to try to break through the political deadlock.
For his part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he hoped this would prove “the last election” of the two-year political crisis.
Rivlin, who voted at a balloting station set up in a school in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood of Jerusalem, stressed the importance of the democratic process.
“I am doing this for the last time as president, but also as a very concerned citizen,” he said. “Even in the midst of the great difficulties we are in, elections for the Knesset are the holy of holies of our democracy.”
The president lamented that four rounds of voting in relatively quick succession were “harming public faith in the democratic process, but the power to influence is only in your hands. There is no other way.”
“For the last time, from a president’s heart to your hearts, go vote,” he said.
Many party leaders and prominent politicians voted early and likewise urged the public to participate in the election, while some warned of the dire consequences of a failure to back their parties.
Netanyahu voted at another school polling station in Jerusalem, where he called on everyone to vote but refused to predict the results.
“This is a festival for democracy,” Netanyahu said alongside his wife, Sara. “This is a happy country. Israel is a country where people are smiling.”
“I hope this is the last election,” he added, referring to this being the fourth vote in two years.
Sara, who last week had her appendix removed, thanked the health staff who treated her and the Israelis who sent wishes for her a recovery.
Earlier, the premier streamed live on Facebook, speaking with supporters around the country to urge Likud voters to go vote. He repeated his recent claim that his Likud party was “missing” two seats to win to get a 61-strong majority.
Among the first to vote was Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem. Deri called on voters to show up and “bring about a decisive result,” adding, “We can’t go to a fifth election.”
Fellow ultra-Orthodox MK Yaakov Litzman, the former leader and current No. 2 of United Torah Judaism, voted in Jerusalem.
“Haredi Jewry and everything that is sacred to the nation of Israel hangs in the balance,” Litzman said, referring to the ultra-Orthodox community.
UTJ leader MK Moshe Gafni cast his ballot in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak.
MK Avigdor Liberman, the leader of the hawkish, secular Yisrael Beytenu party, voted in his home community, the settlement of Nokdim, and repeated his claim that the elections were called because of Netanyahu’s desire to “evade” his ongoing corruption trial on charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
Other right-wing party leaders also cast their votes in the hours after polling booths opened at 7 a.m.
Religious Zionism’s Bezalel Smotrich, voting in the West Bank settlement of Kedumim, expressed optimism that a right-wing government headed by Netanyahu was within reach.
Yamina leader MK Naftali Bennett — who is also celebrating his birthday — voted in Raanana, calling on the public to vote “so that finally, we will form a government that cares.”
MK Ayelet Shaked, the Yamin No. 2, cast her ballot in Tel Aviv, saying the party “can this time finally put an end to this endless election loop.”
“I promise that if you vote for us there won’t be fifth elections,” she said.
Gideon Sa’ar, who has vowed that his New Hope party will not join a Netanyahu government, voted in Tel Aviv flanked by supporters, declaring that it was a “moving occasion for me, three and a half months after forming New Hope. We have a clear direction and big hopes for the future.”
The most senior member of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party to vote early was Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, who cast his ballot in Herzliya and declared he’ll go to other cities to campaign for a high turnout among supporters.
Opposition leader MK Yair Lapid, who leads the Yesh Atid party, predicted to be the second-largest after the vote, cast his ballot in Tel Aviv.
“This is the moment of truth for the State of Israel and in the end everything comes down to two options – a strong Yesh Atid or a benighted, dangerous, racist and homophobic government that will take money from hardworking people and give it to people who don’t work,” he said.
Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, voting in Rosh Ha’ayin, warned that Netanyahu will instate a “different regime” if he wins. Gantz entered into a unity government with Netanyahu after the last election that was supposed to see him rotate the premiership, but the coalition fell after failing to pass a state budget, a development widely seen as engineered by Netanyahu to prevent Gantz from becoming prime minister.
Nitzan Horowitz, leader of the left-wing Meretz party, called the vote “the most dramatic choice in Israeli elections for many years” as he voted in Tel Aviv.
The leader of the center-left Labor party, Merav Michaeli, began her morning with a visit to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, where former prime minister and Labor leader Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995. She was set to vote later in the day.
“These are very important elections, they are wide open and in our hands,” she told reporters. “I came here to the place where it all was halted, because I promise to return to Rabin’s path.”
“We mustn’t give up,” she said, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
MK Ayman Odeh, who leads the predominantly Arab Israeli Joint List party, voted in Haifa.
Mansour Abbas, head of the Islamist Ra’am party, which broke away from the Joint List, cast his vote in a quiet schoolyard square in his hometown of Maghar in northern Israel.
“We’re looking for meaningful representation for Arab Israelis, representation that can influence decision-making,” Abbas told reporters, adding that he wouldn’t rule out the possibility of joining a Netanyahu-led government.
Itamar Ben Gvir, the neo-Kahanist Otzma Yehudit faction’s candidate in the Religious Zionism party, voted at a polling station in the southern West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba.
He told The Times of Israel that he was particularly confident he’d cross the electoral threshold in this round of voting after failing to do so in the previous three, when he ran either independently or in a conglomerate of far-right parties.
Ben Gvir said Netanyahu’s effort to merge Otzma Yehudit with Smotrich’s National Union and the far-right Noam party had all but solidified his chances of making it into the Knesset.
“We’re going to celebrate this evening, God willing,” he told supporters as he entered the polling station.
The Central Elections Committee said election turnout as of 10 a.m. was 14.8%, slightly higher (by 0.3%) than the previous vote last year.
Turnout has gradually been rising over the past three races in the last two years.
Polling stations close at 10 p.m.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.