Israelis were voting for a third time in 12 months on Monday, with embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeking to end the country's political crisis and save his career.
The vote comes just two weeks before the right-wing premier stands trial over a series of corruption allegations, but final polls indicated his support was holding, suggesting another close race between his Likud and the centrist Blue and White party. Both will almost certainly fall well short of a majority in Israel's proportional system and the winner will seek to form a coalition with multiple smaller parties.
After elections in both April and September, last year neither were able to do so, and a similar deadlock remains possible. With few undecided in a divided country of 6.4 million eligible voters, turnout will be key and all parties were campaigning to get their supporters to the polls. Netanyahu, in power since 2009, said Sunday internal polls suggested they were close to winning and finally breaking the political deadlock.
"We are very close to victory," Israel's longest-serving premier told a press conference. "Leave your homes and vote Likud." Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, a former military general, urged supporters to vote and end Netanyahu's divisive rule. "You can't just sit at home clicking your tongue, saying 'what's happening here,'" Gantz told public radio Sunday. "Get out and vote."
In April's election each party won 35 seats, while in September Blue and White garnered 33 against Likud's 32. A number of rightwing parties, including two ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties who last time won 17 seats between them, have already pledged to support Netanyahu. The Joint List, a coalition representing Israel's Arab minority, won 13 seats in September and backed Gantz, as did a number of smaller leftwing parties. In January, Netanyahu was officially charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, becoming the first sitting Israeli leader to be indicted.
The 70-year-old will face trial from March 17 on charges including receiving improper gifts worth thousands of dollars and offering a media mogul lucrative regulatory changes in exchange for favourable coverage.
Netanyahu has dominated Likud for twenty years and maintains a deep loyalty in the party, easily defeating a recent leadership challenge. He has denied all charges, accusing the state prosecution, media and others of a witch-hunt. Polls suggest Likud's support has held firm. In January, US President Donald Trump unveiled controversial peace proposals greenlighting Israel's annexation of settlements and swathes of land in the occupied West Bank, sparking Palestinian outrage.
Bolstered by US support, Netanyahu has campaigned on building thousands more homes in Jewish settlements in the territory. All settlements are considered illegal by the international community. Gantz, a security hawk who previously led the Israeli military, has also welcomed the Trump proposals. Despite backing Gantz, the Joint List has campaigned on opposition to the Trump proposals, which were immediately rejected by the Palestinian leadership.
Gantz has pledged to clean up politics and focused heavily on corruption allegations against his rival. But in recent days the campaign has become particularly vicious, with a series of leaked recordings and mudslinging. Voting is taking place despite fears over the coronavirus epidemic, with seven cases so far confirmed in the Jewish state. Special polling booths have been erected for the 5,600 Israelis under self-quarantine, many of whom visited countries where the virus is prevalent.
They are not allowed to use normal polling stations and will wear masks while voting. Exit polls will be released immediately after, with final results expected Tuesday morning. The previous two elections have seen the rightwing and centrist-left blocs remain roughly static in size, and polls suggest the political statis will continue.
"It is hard to see what could convince someone who voted twice for the same party to shift this time," said Ofer Zalzberg, an Israeli analyst at the International Crisis Group think-tank. He said both the left and right had focused on boosting voter turnout. "The most likely result is we wake up Tuesday morning still stuck without a clear winner."