Elections for 17th Knesset underway
(VIDEO) At 7 a.m. 8,280 polling stations open all across the country; more than five million Israelis eligible to vote for new government; stations to close at 10 p.m., followed by publication of exit polls. Acting PM Ehud Olmert first among candidates to cast vote near his Jerusalem home
VIDEO - Elections Day: At 7 a.m. Tuesday polling stations opened all across the country. More than five million Israelis are eligible to vote at the 8,280 stations, which will remain open until 10 p.m., after which the exit polls will be published.
Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was the first among the candidates to cast his vote, as he arrived along with wife Aliza to a voting station at Jerusalem’s Beit Hinuch High School, located near his Old Katamon neighborhood home.
Voting in Tel Aviv (Video: Shai Rosenzweig)
Olmert called on the public to “go out and vote.”
Kadima’s no. 2 Shimon Peres voted in the “Arazim” school in Ramat Aviv; he said voting in the elections is crucial as “these elections will determine the country’s character, borders and moral identity.”
Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef cast his vote in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Har Nof in Jerusalem, after which he said “voting is a mitzvah.”
It all started with the "Big Bang" and ailing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's departure from Likud and decision to set up a new party, Kadima, although some observers say the Gaza and northern West Bank disengagement was the first indication of the political storm to follow.
One thing is clear: Even those who complained the results are known in advance will sit in front of the television at 10 p.m. while finding it hard to avoid the oh-so-Israeli excitement, as exit polls results are published. This time around, for the first time, Ynet will also have its own poll, marking the first time an Internet news website in Israel challenges the supremacy of leading television stations.
Acting PM Olmert casts vote (Video: Eddie Boy)
In order to ensure the celebration is not spoiled, security forces have deployed in force across the country, with police declaring the highest state of alert and sending about 22,000 officers to boost security across Israel.
And how have the parties prepared for the big day?
It is hard to believe Kadima was only born several months ago, with the upcoming elections marking the first time it takes part in the democratic process. The frontrunner, which according to all polls will be celebrating an overwhelming victory come nighttime, has prepared for Election Day as if it was a military operation, earmarked millions of shekels for logistical preparations, and set up a command center headed by former Shin Bet Director Avi Dichter.
Olmert will be briefed on developments throughout the day, and party leaders and activists are expected gather near Jerusalem to watch the exit poll results together.
Labor party officials are counting on assistance from trade unions, and particularly the Histadrut labor union federation, which aided party leader Amir Peretz during his primaries win.
A senior party member said "24 Knesset seats for Labor would be a nice result and mark a trend of change for us." In order to make it happen, the party set up a special situation room to monitor developments.
Meanwhile, party leader Peretz will vote at his hometown of Sderot and later tour polling stations and party branches in the South and in Tel Aviv. Other top Labor officials will also tour the country and by nighttime will gather at Labor headquarters in Tel Aviv to watch the exit polls.
Party officials cannot recall an election campaign where Likud started from such an inferior position, as tensions mount ahead of the moment of truth. The party earmarked NIS 5 million and designated 70 call-center operators for Election Day in a bid to encourage voters to hit the polls. Another 2,000 vehicles have been prepared to assist supporters who have difficulties in reaching polling stations.
Overall, 25,000 activists, both volunteers and hired help, will take part in a last-ditch effort to bring disappointed Likudniks back home.
Likud Chairman Benjamin Netanyahu will attempt to visit as many central Likud branches as possible. In the morning Bibi will tour Jerusalem and by noontime vote along with his wife in the capital. Later, the two will tour party branches in central and northern Israel. At night, Netanyahu will arrive in Tel Aviv in order to monitor the results and hope for the best.
National Union – National Religious Party
The united right-wing party is mobilizing its forces on Election Day, and every candidate has been placed in a different area of the country, both within the Green Line and in Judea and Samaria, in order to ensure that all branches are functioning properly.
The list's Chairman, Knesset Member Benny Alon, will arrive in the morning to vote at Beit El in the West Bank, while Knesset Member Zevulun Orlev will vote in Jerusalem. By 10 p.m. party members will gather near Bar-Ilan Universit just outside Tel Aviv where they will watch the results unfold on television.
Some 1,000 volunteers will tour the country to help voters at the polls. Opposition to the disengagement from Gaza will be expressed when former Gush Katif residents will arrive at the polls with stickers carrying the message: "Gush Katif – the nation remembers," hoping to influence Israelis at the last moment to prevent a further expulsion, in their words.
"We feel that the voters understood what the alternatives they face today are. We explained in the clearest way who wants to end the occupation – Meretz is the best alternative for this. Tomorrow evening we'll know if we won," a Meretz source said.
The Meretz elections headquarters will spring into action early Tuesday morning until all votes have been counted. Meanwhile, Meretz will man 1,300 voting centers, and its activists will put up a quarter of a million leaflets on doors overnight, reading: "Please don't disturb," and on the reverse side: "Please don't disturb the government as it destroyed education, etc… Or start disturbing it – vote Meretz."
Throughout Election Day, party youths will engage in a series of activities in a bid to encourage voters. Meanwhilep Party heads will tour the country. Meretz Chairman Yossi Beilin will vote in Ramat Aviv, in northern Tel Aviv, and from there continue to party branches in the North, before returning to central Israel.
Shas is not leaving anything to chance, with party spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Chairman Eli Yishai starting the day with a prayer at a synagogue near the rabbi's Jerusalem home. After the prayer, Rabbi Ovadia will be busy with phone calls to encourage supporters to hit the polls.
Shas supporters in action (Photo: Gil Yohanan)
Yishai will cast his ballot following the prayer and from there continue to Shas headquarters to speak to activists. The Shas chairman has not yet decided where he will watch the exit poll results and is debating between Rabbi Ovadia's home and party headquarters.
Israel Our Home
The complimentary polls of the last week, which show that Avigdor Lieberman's party will be the surprise of the elections are not blinding anyone at Israel Our Home. The party prefers not to come out with declarations before voting begins and is focusing on field work until the end of voting.
Chairman Lieberman will vote in the morning at his home community of Nokdim in the West Bank before heading out to the Western Wall to pray. By the afternoon, Lieberman will tour several towns, before returning to a hotel in Jerusalem in the evening in order to watch the results.
United Torah Judaism
The party's Knesset members plan to tour the country while focusing mainly on ultra-Orthodox population centers. Close to a million and a half shekels have been invested in Election Day and thousands of activists, most of them volunteers, will be offering their assistance.
A large fleet of buses will lead Yeshiva students to vote in their areas, and vehicles belonging to the Yad Sarah Association will stand at the service of disabled voters.
Party Spokesman Betzalel Kahan said: "We hope to reach the maximum voter turnout rate on the ultra-Orthodox street and to break the record set last time. There are also expectations to receive votes from the conservative public. The headquarters are ready and organized and thousands of activists will be ready by the early morning hours, after morning prayers, in the voting centers."
Ilan Marciano, Attila Somfalvi, Efrat Weiss, Ali Waked, Roee Nahmias, Sharon Roffe Ophir, and Miri Chason contributed to the story