Israelis go to polls in referendum on PM Benjamin Netanyahu's record reign
Israelis began voting in an election on Tuesday that could hand conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a record fifth term or see him dethroned by an ex-general who has pledged clean government and social cohesion.
By 6:00 pm, overall turnout was 52 per cent compared to 54.6 per cent at the same time in the 2015 elections.
Polling stations opened at 7 am across the country and will close at 10 pm. But the victor may not be decided immediately. No party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-seat parliament, meaning days or even weeks of coalition negotiations will lie ahead.
Dubbed "King Bibi," Netanyahu has rallied a rightist camp hardened against the Palestinians and played up Israeli foreign policy boons that are the fruit of his ties with the Trump administration.
But the 69-year-old Likud party leader's hope of overtaking Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion, as longest-serving premier in July has been dented by a looming graft indictment in which he denies any wrongdoing.
Critics warn of "Bibi fatigue" and argue that the parliamentary election should bring fresh faces to high office.
Stalking Netanyahu in the opinion polls has been Benny Gantz, a former chief of the armed forces and centrist political novice.
Buttressed by two other former generals at the top of his Blue and White party, Gantz, 59, has sought to push back against Netanyahu's self-styled image as unrivalled in national security.
After the election, Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, will consult the leaders of every party represented in the Knesset and select the person he believes has the best chance of forming a government.
'Enough is enough'
Voting at a polling station in Rosh Ha’ayin near Tel Aviv, gynaecologist Yaron Zalel, 64, said he supported Netanyahu’s chief opponent, the centrist former general Benny Gantz.
"Netanyahu did a lot of great things for Israel, really, a lot of great things. But he is 13 years in power and enough is enough," he said.
"He has had enough, he did enough. Now when he feels his earth, the political earth, is shaking, he is destroying everything."
'Hope for change'
In Jerusalem, Ronza Barakat, a librarian belonging to Israel's Arab minority, said she backed the left-wing Meretz party.
"I voted for them hoping for change, a change in the racism that exists here," she said. "We live together in a place of peace, why should hate exist between people?"
With little policy daylight between the two main candidates on issues such as Iran and relations with the Palestinians, much of the voting will be guided by judgements on character and personality.
Victim of media bias: Netanyahu
In vitriolic campaigns waged largely over social media rather than in town squares or street corners, they have traded escalating accusations of corruption, of fostering bigotry and even of conspiring with Israel's adversaries.
Netanyahu casts himself as the victim of media bias and judicial overreach.
"This is a choice between a strong right-wing government under Netanyahu or a weak leftist government under Gantz," his Likud party said in a pre-election statement.
'Salve for Israel's ethnically riven society'
Gantz casts himself as a salve for Israel's religiously and ethnically riven society and its ties with liberal Jews abroad.
"Netanyahu is not the Messiah, nor an irreplaceable legend," Gantz told Reuters in the run-up to the election.
"The people of Israel long for something else."
But the distinctions between the leading parties in Israel were not as vivid as they had been in past decades, said Nabil Shaath, a veteran adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Battle between 'right' and 'further to the right'
"There were times when elections were important because there was really more than one camp in Israel, there was a left and there was a right," Nabil Shaath said on Monday.
"But now, what are you talking about? It's the right, and then further to the right and then the extreme right and then further to the extreme right, there is really no left in Israel."
'National unity' coalition
Both Netanyahu and Gantz have publicly ruled out a future alliance in a "national unity" coalition, but some analysts predict a rethink, especially if the candidates agree to tackle together a widely expected US plan for Middle East peace.
That plan's sponsor, President Donald Trump, told Republican Jewish supporters on Saturday, "I think it's going to be close ... Two good people."