Israel's top officials, including President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, cast their ballots on Tuesday, urging Israelis for follow in their footsteps as the country was headed for the polls for the fourth time in two years.
Israelis began voting on Tuesday, with polling stations opening at 7am and exit polls expected at 10pm, when the stations close. By 12pm, 25.4% of Israelis cast their votes, much lower than the same figure reported during the previous national vote.
Some 6,578,084 Israelis are eligible to vote, with 13,685 polling stations set up across the country. At least 751 stations are dedicated to coronavirus patients and those in self-isolation, including one set up at Ben Gurion Airport.
Rivlin voted at a polling station in Jerusalem, where earlier, delays and technical malfunctions were reported. He called the elections "The Holy of Holies" but added the multitude of national votes reflects negatively on the government.
"Go out and vote. I am doing this for the last time as president, but also as a very concerned citizen," he said. "The Knesset elections are The Holy of Holies of our democracy, but a fourth election campaign undermines the public's trust."
Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, voted at a different polling station in the capital, with the prime minister calling the elections "a holiday" for Israel and "a day of joy and smiles".
"For me, it is especially exciting to come here with my wife, who had a difficult week," said Netanyahu, referring to Sara's appendicitis operation. "We are 100 meters from where I studied in first grade. It is exciting to return here and vote in our country, which is a world wonder."
Netanyahu's biggest rivals in this election - Yesh Atid's Yair Lapid, Yamina's Naftali Bennett and former Likud minister and New Hope leader Gideon Saar - also cast their votes in the morning hours.
"This is the moment of truth for Israel," said Lapid as he voted in Tel Aviv. "In the end, it all boils down to only two possibilities: A powerful Yesh Atid or a government of darkness, racism and homophobia."
Bennett, who is celebrating his 49th birthday, voted in his city of Raanana. "I call on everyone to go out and vote, to bring about a change of government," he said while leaving his house.
Saar voted with his wife at a polling station in north Tel Aviv. "This is an exciting day for me. "Three and a half months after I formed 'New Hope,' this is the first time it has stood the electoral test of the Israeli public. We have a clear path and a great hope for the future," he said.
Last election's main challenger - Blue & White Chairman Benny Gantz - voted at a polling station in his hometown of Rosh HaAyin. Gantz called on the public to vote, warning that "otherwise, we will not even reach the fifth election, there will be a different regime here."
Meanwhile, Meretz Chairman Nitzan Horowitz voted near his home in Tel Aviv. "This is the closest election in years. If Meretz [receives enough seats], Netanyahu will not have his government of the ignorant."
Latest public opinion polls forecast a tight race between those who support Israel’s longest-serving premier and those who want “anyone but Bibi,” as he is widely known.
Up to 15% of the electorate is expected to vote outside their home districts, a batch of absentee balloting that’s larger than usual to accommodate those with coronavirus or in quarantine. The government is dispatching special polling stations, including vehicles, to provide places for them to vote safely.
Those votes are tallied separately in Jerusalem, meaning final results may not be known for days. Given the tight race, the large number of undecided voters and a number of small parties struggling to cross the 3.25% threshold for entry into parliament, it could be difficult to predict the outcome before the final count is complete.
Central Election Committee Director General Orly Adas said the final election results are not expected until Friday, March 27.
"I hope that come morning we will count about 70% of the ballots across all regular polling stations," she told Ynet. "As for the double envelopes - they will have to go through a complex process of inspection before being counted. The count of these envelopes will start on Wednesday night. Therefore, we do not expect final results before Friday."