Israelis went to the polls in numbers not seen for years Tuesday as the country held its fifth vote in under four years, pitting center-left incumbent Yair Lapid’s shaky coalition against opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is hoping to sweep back into power backed by far-right allies.
With voting booths nationwide set to close at 10 p.m., election authorities reported turnout at 66.3 percent as of 8 p.m., up from 60.9% as of the same time in 2021 and the highest since 1999, when 71.4% had voted by 8 p.m. (The final turnout was later confirmed at 71.3% — the highest since 2015.)
Most party leaders cast ballots early before spending the day trying to convince Israelis to head to the polls, many of them broadcasting alarm over the tight race, or claiming their opponents were set to win in a bid to scare up extra votes.
“Unsurprisingly, it’s a very very very close race,” Lapid said during a visit to Yesh Atid campaign headquarters, citing internal party data. “The election is hanging on a thread. You cannot stay home in a situation like this.”
In a statement, Netanyahu claimed that “we are in a tie with Lapid. The race is very close.”
Netanyahu’s Likud party and allies sent messages out throughout the day saying there was high turnout in left-leaning strongholds, an echo of his attempts to drive turnout in past elections.
“Polling stations in leftist bastions and Arab towns are crowded with massive lines,” Shas MK Yaakov Asher claimed while visiting a Beit Shemesh polling station.
Most surveys in recent days have given a Netanyahu-led bloc 60 seats, one short of a majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Netanyahu is relying on the support of ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas as well as the far-right Religious Zionism party, which has polled strongly after partnering with ultra-nationalist Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit faction.
A former follower of extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, Ben Gvir has been promised a cabinet post in a potential Netanyahu government, raising alarms both at home and abroad.
Soaring in the polls, Ben Gvir took to the skies in a helicopter over Beersheba Tuesday afternoon, appealing for votes via a loudspeaker as he traveled to central Israel.
“It’s either a government with [National Unity party leader Benny] Gantz or a government with Ben Gvir,” the far-right lawmaker declared before taking off, claiming that Netanyahu will partner with the centrist if his far-right party does not win enough support.
The election is the latest in a series of votes since 2019 that have failed to bring more than a modicum of stability, with the country seemingly locked between pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps. While voters have seemingly swung to the right, a number of right-leaning parties have balked at joining a government led by the Likud chief due to the trio of corruption cases he is standing trial for, forcing him to turn to the far-right for partners.
At a Jaffa ballot station, a voter named Ido said he was backing Lapid because it was “time for a change,” a nod to the incumbent’s “change” description for his now-crumbled 2021 coalition and a reflection of the hold that Netanyahu, who led the nation from 2009 to 2021, still holds over the nation’s politics.
While 60 seats are projected to go to parties opposed to Netanyahu, the Arab alliance Hadash-Ta’al has indicated it will not join a coalition, likely leaving Lapid short of the support needed for another term as prime minister.
Fellow Arab faction Ra’am made history following the last election when it chose to join Lapid’s coalition, seeking a pragmatic path aimed at securing benefits for the Arab community.
With three Arab-led parties splitting support, turnout among the Arab community is seen as a key factor that could determine the shape of the post-election landscape. Low turnout could keep two of the factions from crossing the 3.25% support threshold, which would likely translate into a boon for Netanyahu.
As of 8 p.m., turnout in the Arab community was at 44%, and on pace to hit 54%, according to pollsters from Hebrew University’s aChord Center, which specializes in studying intergroup relations. The center noted it was the first year surveys of Arab turnout were being published during the election, making it impossible to compare to previous years or draw far-reaching conclusions.
The center noted that turnout of 60% was needed to ensure Arab representation in the Knesset.
Arab turnout often significantly lags turnout in the general population, and some polls had forecast historically low levels in this election due to the Joint List splitting between leftist-nationalist Hadash-Ta’al, Islamist Ra’am and hardline nationalist Balad.
In Lod’s open-air market, Ahmad Mansour said he was unsure if he would vote, but if he did he would choose between Balad and Ra’am.
“Prices need to be brought down — the cost of living is too high, property is too expensive,” he said, adding that he did not have much faith that politicians will be effective in achieving this goal.
Hadash-Ta’al projected worries that it would not make it into the Knesset, with MK Aida Touma-Sliman making an extraordinary appeal for help from Jewish voters.
“Jewish partners,” she said in a Hebrew-language tweet. “According to the current rate of voting, Hadash-Ta’al is in real danger of not passing the threshold. For the first time in 74 years, there is a real chance that the clearest voice against the occupation and for Arab-Jewish partnership will disappear from the Knesset.”
Other politicians also tried to appeal for votes by claiming that they were in danger, a strategy known in Israel as “gevalt” — a Yiddish expression of woe.
“According to our numbers, our constituents aren’t even at 50% turnout,” new United Torah Judaism leader Yitzhak Goldknopf said.
Despite the comment, both UTJ and Shas were broadcasting calm confidence in the election results, Channel 12 news reported.
The seemingly unending string of elections has led to worries of voter apathy, most of which have proved unfounded with candidates able to seize on the high stakes of the vote to drive turnout.
“These are the first elections in the country’s history [making a choice] between democracy and Kahanism,” Meretz head Zehava Gal-on said at a Petah Tikva polling station, though she also claimed her party was in an “emergency” and might not return to the Knesset.
The same concerns were also being echoed by sources in Labor, which would mark a historic low for the once-powerful party.
“Turnout percentages for the Bibi-Ben Gvir bloc are especially high and endangering our bloc,” party leader Merav Michaeli tweeted.
According to Channel 12 news, party members were expressing “real anger” with Michaeli, who had resisted attempts by Lapid to broker an alliance between Labor and Meretz, which is further to the left on the political spectrum.
At Palmachim beach near Rishon Lezion, some non-voters enjoying the day off expressed frustration with the political system.
“Everyone is the same shit … it’s rigged from the beginning,” said Mark Ruvinov, 23, from Ashkelon. “Once you know that, why vote?”
Some 12,000 ballot stations opened nationwide at 7 a.m. and were set to close at 10 p.m. with exit polls being released immediately and votes counted throughout the night and Wednesday.
Election authorities reported a number of issues at polling stations, including isolated irregularities and violence or threats at polling stations in Carmiel, Rehovot, Taibe, and the Krayot region.
In Yarka, police were stationed at polling booths and poll workers who are members of political parties were replaced by unaffiliated officials after reports that empty voting envelopes were stolen.
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.
Around 6.8 million Israelis are eligible to vote.
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 were 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.
Jacob Magid, Jeremy Sharon, Tal Schnieder, Sue Surkes, Carrie Keller-Lynn, and Jack Mukand contributed to this report.