Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has urged Israelis to cast their ballot despite signs of voter fatigue in the country’s fourth parliamentary election in two years.
“This is a festive day for Israel,” he said as he cast his ballot.
“We are going out to fulfil the democratic right.”
The 71-year-old has been in power uninterrupted since 2009 despite a corruption trial against him, the evidence stage of which is due to start in only two weeks.
In a bid to woo Arab voters, Netanyahu posted a video on Twitter in which he promised direct flights from Tel Aviv to Mecca, so that Israel’s Muslim citizens would no longer have to take cumbersome detours for their Haj pilgrimage.
Observers said the tweet aimed to underscore to Israel’s Jewish majority Netanyahu’s promise to normalise ties with “four more Arab states” after the treaties he signed with Gulf states in September.
The prime minster hopes the historic treaties and Israel’s successful vaccination campaign will boost his chances of forming a coalition with right-of-centre and ultra-Orthodox parties backed by a majority of 61 mandates in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset.
He may need the backing of an Arab party for a confidence vote in a coalition if the pro-Netanyahu bloc fails to win 61 mandates.
By 2pm local time, voter turnout was 34.6 per cent – 3.5 percentage points lower than at the same hour one year ago.
This stepped up fears of voter weariness, with Israel’s Central Elections Committee urging Israelis to go out and vote.
Netanyahu, too, in a series of tweets, urged potential Likud supporters to vote.
“What’s going on with you Jerusalemites? Go out and vote! Otherwise you’ll get Yair Lapid as prime minister,” he said in a video recorded in the backseat of his car.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid called the parliamentary elections Israel’s “hour of truth”.
“In the end we have two options: a strong Yesh Atid party or a murky, dangerous, racist and homophobic government, which takes money from hard-working people and gives it to those who do not work,” said the 57-year-old, who leads the pro-reform party.
Polls predict that Netanyahu’s Likud will emerge again as the biggest party, with Lapid’s Yesh Atid (which translates as “there is a future”) coming in second.
But they also predict Netanyahu will face great difficulty in building a functioning and stable government.
The Central Elections Committee said a final result is not expected before Friday as the postal votes of soldiers, diplomats, prisoners and coronavirus patients are only to be counted from Wednesday.
Exit polls were scheduled to be released by Israel’s three major TV stations after the end of voting at 10pm on Tuesday (7am AEDT on Wednesday).
Netanyahu formed a short-lived and tense “emergency” unity government with former rival Benny Gantz of the Blue and White faction last year to fight the pandemic but it collapsed in December amid a disagreement about the budget.
Blue and White is predicted by the polls to shrink from 33 mandates at the last election – when it came just behind Likud – to about five.
Some polls predict that the centrist faction may not even pass the electoral threshold of 3.25 per cent.
Neither Netanyahu nor Gantz had been able to form a governing coalition without the other after earlier inconclusive elections in April and September of 2019.
About 6.6 million of Israel’s 9.3 million citizens are eligible to vote at nearly 13,700 polling stations.
There are also several dozen voting stations designated for Israelis with COVID-19 or in quarantine.
The complicated logistics have caused confusion among Israelis in quarantine or infected with the virus.