Israelis voted Monday in an unprecedented third election in less than a year to decide whether longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stays in power despite his upcoming trial on corruption charges.
Netanyahu, the longest-serving leader in Israeli history, has been a caretaker prime minister for more than a year as a divided country has weathered two inconclusive votes and prolonged political paralysis. With opinion polls forecasting another deadlock, Netanyahu is seeking a late surge in support to score a parliamentary majority along with other nationalist parties that will give him a fourth consecutive term in office and fifth overall.
He faces a stiff challenge once again from retired military chief Benny Gantz, whose centrist Blue and White party is running even with Netanyahu's Likud on a campaign message that the prime minister is unfit to lead because of the serious charges against him.
Both parties appear unable to form a coalition with their traditional allies. With the prospect of a unity government between them seemingly off the table after a particularly nasty campaign, the vote may well turn into merely a preamble to another election.
"I hope that today marks the start of a healing process, where we can begin living together again," Gantz said upon casting his ballot in his hometown of Rosh Ha'ayin in central Israel, warning voters not to "get drawn in by the lies or by the violence" after the acrimonious campaign.
There was little fanfare ahead of the vote, with a noticeable absence of campaign posters on the streets and public rallies that typically characterize the run-up to Israeli elections.
With voter fatigue clearly a factor, turnout could prove to be decisive. The elections commission said 56.3% of eligible voters had cast ballots by 6 p.m. (1600 GMT, 11 a.m. EST), the highest turnout by that time of the day since 1999.
Election day is a national holiday in Israel and the country usually boasts one of the highest turnouts among Western democracies. But the second repeat vote and fears over the coronavirus, which has so far been kept largely in check, look to hinder participation.
Israel set up some 15 stations to allow voting by hundreds of Israelis who have been ordered to remain in home quarantine after possible exposure to the virus.
"The corona thing is completely under control. Today we've taken all the precautions that are necessary. People can go and vote with complete confidence," Netanyahu said after casting his ballot in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has tried to portray himself as a statesman who is uniquely qualified to lead the country through challenging times. Gantz has tried to paint him as divisive and scandal-plagued, offering himself as a calming influence and an honest alternative.
President Donald Trump's Mideast initiative, which strongly favors Israel and was rejected by the Palestinians, had been expected to give Netanyahu a major boost. But both Netanyahu and Gantz welcomed the initiative, and it appears to have had little impact on voters.
Gantz says he favors a national unity government with Likud, but only if it rids itself of its longtime leader because of the corruption charges against him. Netanyahu, who still enjoys widespread support in his party, insists he must remain prime minister in any unity deal.
With his career on the line, Netanyahu has campaigned furiously. He's taken a hard turn to the right in hopes of rallying his nationalist base, promising to expand and annex West Bank settlements. In a campaign marked by ugly smears, Netanyahu's surrogates have spread unfounded allegations that Gantz is corrupt, unstable and susceptible to blackmail by Iran.
The most recent attempt appears to have backfired. Recordings have revealed Netanyahu lied on live television about not being involved in a plot to secretly record a Gantz consultant disparaging his boss. Channel 12 broadcast audio Sunday night of Netanyahu speaking to the rabbi who clandestinely recorded the Gantz adviser and discussing when it would be leaked.
Netanyahu is desperate to score a narrow 61-seat majority in parliament with his hard-line religious and nationalist allies before going on trial March 17. Netanyahu has failed to secure himself immunity from prosecution, but with a strong hold on power he could seek other avenues to derail the legal proceedings against him.
Netanyahu is charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust stemming from accusations he accepted lavish gifts from billionaire friends and promised to promote advantageous legislation for a major newspaper in exchange for favorable coverage. He vowed to prove his innocence in court.
Maverick politician Avigdor Lieberman once again looms as a potential kingmaker, with neither Netanyahu nor Gantz able to secure a parliamentary majority without his support. Lieberman has not committed himself to either candidate, although he has promised there will not be a fourth election.
Voting began at 7 a.m. with exit polls expected at 10 p.m. (2000 GMT, 3 p.m. EST). Official results are expected overnight.
That's when the real jockeying may get underway, with attention shifting to President Reuven Rivlin, who is responsible for choosing a candidate for prime minister. He is supposed to select the leader who he believes has the best chance of putting together a stable coalition. The honor usually goes to the head of the largest party, but not necessarily. Just as important is the number of lawmakers outside the party who recommend the candidate.
Rivlin's selection will then have up to six weeks to form a coalition. If he fails, another candidate then has 28 days to form an alternative coalition. If that effort fails, new elections would be forced.
"This is usually a holiday, but to be honest, I have no festivity in me, just a sense of deep shame before you, the citizens of Israel," Rivlin said as he voted. "We don't deserve another horrible and filthy campaign like the one that ends today and we don't deserve this endless instability. We deserve a government that will work for us."