Israelis voted on Monday in an unprecedented third parliamentary elections in less than a year to break the deadlock on government formation, with the country’s longest serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fighting for his political survival amid indictments on graft charges.
Israel’s Central Elections Committee said 47 per cent of registered voters had cast their ballots by 4 pm (local time), a
2.7 per cent increase from the September elections and the highest figures for this hour since the 1999 elections when incumbent Netanyahu lost to Ehud Barak in a direct election.
Neither Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party, nor his main challenger, Benny Gantz — leader of the Blue and White alliance — were able to put together majority coalitions following the last two elections.
The final opinion polls suggested the latest round is too close to call. Some 10,631 polling stations opened at 7 am Israel time to enable about 6,45 million eligible voters to cast their ballots.
Amid high turnout in Israeli elections in years, some 2,000 voters cast ballots at special polling stations meant for those under home quarantine for fear of exposure to the coronavirus till 3 PM.
Some 5,600 eligible voters are said to be under quarantine for whom the Central Elections Committee has made special polling stations at 16 locations, Channel 12 reported.
President Reuven Rivlin expressed a feeling of "deep shame" while voting.
“This is normally a festive day, but the truth is that I don't feel like celebrating. I only feel a sense of deep shame when I face you, my fellow citizens,” Rivlin said after casting his vote at the Yefe Nof school in Jerusalem.
"We just don't deserve this. We don't deserve another awful and grubby election campaign like the one that ends today and we don't deserve this never-ending instability. We deserve a government that works for us,” the Israeli President said.
Exit polls will be released immediately after 10 PM, with final results expected on Tuesday morning.
Israel's highly divided polity threw two inconclusive elections result in April 9 and September 17 polls with nobody managing to muster support of 61 Knesset members.
If the results of the third round of polls are aligned with current predictions, the stalemate is likely to linger which complicates the pitch for the Israeli prime minister who will go on trial in just two weeks after Monday's vote.
Netanyahu, 70, stands trial over a series of corruption allegations, which he has denied.
He claimed on Sunday that his party's internal polling showed that he was a hair's breadth away from a Knesset (Israeli Parliament) majority that would allow the formation of a right-wing government, an announcement that led to charges of breaking election laws against him.
Opinion polls in the final days leading up to Monday's elections showed Netanyahu holding on to his support base, and even a slight surge, which could help him garner more seats than rival Blue and White party.
However, the surveys indicated that his right-wing coalition was still well short of achieving a 61 seat Knesset (Israeli parliament) majority in the house of 120 with some analysts talking about the spectacle of a fourth round of elections.
Netanyahu's high-decibel campaign has focussed on his personal credentials as a world leader with personal rapport with leading politicians around the globe, success in keeping Israel's economy steady, turning the country into a world leader in hi-tech and dismissing his main rival Gantz, a former Chief of Staff, as a political lightweight who has been conspiring with Arab parties to dethrone him.
The Israeli prime minister's campaign was also boosted by regular favours from US President Donald Trump who first recognised undivided Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel, then Israeli control over the Golan Heights and most recently his tumultuous 'deal of the century' giving Israel the go-ahead to annex large settlements in the West Bank. Netanyahu has vowed to start annexing the controversial territory shortly after the elections if voted to power.
Netanyahu's close personal chemistry with other world leaders, including India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, has also been often touted as his strength to lead the country which is still not formally recognised by most of the Islamic countries.
Putin has in his own way tried to help Netanyahu's re-election, but not as boisterously as Trump.
In short, Monday's election can be seen as another referendum on Netanyahu, who became the country's longest serving Prime Minister in July of last year.
Gantz, 60, has focused his campaign on Netanyahu's character painting him as an egomaniac obsessed with remaining in power and escaping justice at all cost.
He has portrayed himself as a moderate alternative to the polarising prime minister in whose leadership the Israel's polity and society stands completely divided.
Former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who was crowned the kingmaker, in September 17 elections, is likely to be the key deciding factor again in breaking the logjam on government formation.
He had pushed for a unity government, with or without him, the last time and has largely remained consistent in his position.
While unity government seems to be the easiest solution to the current deadlock, talks didn't bear fruit last time because of lack of consensus as to who would lead the government first.