Netanyahu and Gantz are neck and neck in exit polls.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his centrist challenger, the former army chief Benny Gantz, appeared to be neck and neck as Israel’s second election in five months drew to a close Tuesday night, according to initial surveys of voters leaving the polls.
It was too early to tell if Mr. Gantz’s Blue and White party or Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party would emerge with enough seats in Parliament to form a governing coalition.
In three exit polls, Mr. Gantz held a slight edge. None of the surveys gave either man a governing majority.
The last voters were still lining up to cast their ballots at 10 p.m. when the exit polls were reported.
Adding to the uncertainty, Israeli exit polls have been inaccurate and unreliable in the past.
Actual results were expected to trickle in overnight. And the winner of the contest for prime minister could end up being decided not by the final vote count but in weeks of coalition talks.
Mr. Gantz, speaking to supporters in Tel Aviv early Wednesday, sounded cautiously optimistic despite those uncertainties. “According to the current results, Netanyahu did not complete his mission,” he said. “We did.”
“Israeli society is strong,” he added, “but it is wounded, and the time has come to heal it.”
At his own event later in the morning, Mr. Netanyahu told a small but vocal crowd in Tel Aviv that he would wait for the actual results, but planned to enter negotiations to establish “a strong Zionist government and prevent a dangerous anti-Zionist government.”
“There won’t be, there can’t be a government that relies on the anti-Zionist Arab parties, parties that deny Israel’s very existence as a Jewish and democratic state,” he said. “Parties that glorify and praise bloodthirsty terrorists who murder our soldiers, our citizens and our children. That simply cannot be.”
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, he narrowly won the vote in April but was unable to form a government with his usual right-wing and religious coalition partners. He dissolved Parliament, triggering Tuesday’s do-over election, rather than let Mr. Gantz or another rival be given the chance to form a coalition.
The exit polls had other bad news for Mr. Netanyahu.
All three showed the umbrella Arab party, the Arab Joint List, improving on its 10-seat current representation, with gains of up to three seats. Arab citizens were eager to end the Netanyahu era, and any increase in their representation in Parliament takes seats away from a possible Netanyahu coalition.
The exit polls also all showed a far-right anti-Arab party, Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power, failing to gain enough votes to be seated in Parliament. If that result holds it could prove costly to Mr. Netanyahu, because the party’s votes — which could have gone to other right-wing parties that would have joined his coalition — will have been wasted.
Liberman may be a kingmaker, polls show.
The clearest winner late Tuesday appeared to be Avigdor Liberman, the longtime Netanyahu ally turned nemesis who leads an ultranationalist secular party.
After forcing the repeat election by refusing to join a Netanyahu coalition in the spring, he appeared to have picked up enough seats to again deny Mr. Netanyahu a majority after Tuesday’s ballot, exit polls showed.
Mr. Liberman immediately moved to play the role of kingmaker, urging the formation of a “broad government, not a government that fights for its survival week to week, from one no-confidence motion to another.”
He urged President Reuven Rivlin to call Mr. Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, the Blue and White leader, in for talks on forming a coalition even before the election results have been finalized, saying the country was in an “emergency situation.”
He insisted he would stick to his campaign promise that his Yisrael Beiteinu party would not join a right-wing government dependent on ultra-Orthodox support.
“We only have one option,” he told supporters. “A broad, liberal, national government made up of Yisrael Beiteinu, Likud and Blue and White.”
Alluding to the likelihood that Mr. Netanyahu would try to entice him anyway, Mr. Liberman said that “no proposals, no tempting offers will help, neither an alternating premiership arrangement or budgets or portfolios.” He added: “Everything we said, we continue to say.”
The kind of unity government he is proposing, however, would have another obstacle. Mr. Gantz has said he would not sit in a government with a prime minister facing possible indictment, as Mr. Netanyahu is. He has said that he would be open to joining a coalition with the Likud party without Mr. Netanyahu at its head.
Mr. Liberman’s career seemed endangered when he quit as defense minister last November, helping to force the April elections. His political base of fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union was dwindling, and his party only won five seats.
But he seized on a dispute with the ultra-Orthodox parties over a bill to require more religious school students to perform military service, fashioning himself as a champion of secular Israelis impatient with the rabbinate’s monopoly on many aspects of Jewish life.
He ran an effective campaign, prompting Mr. Gantz’s Blue and White party to join him in taking on the ultra-Orthodox and right-wing ultrareligious parties.
Tuesday’s vote carried tremendous risk for Mr. Liberman: Had Mr. Netanyahu come away with a clear victory, Mr. Liberman would have put the country through a costly, unwanted and exhausting second election for nothing.
Instead, it appeared that he had triggered the do-over ballot, set the agenda for the contest and emerged from it in a strong position to help decide Israel’s next leader.
Turnout is higher than the last election.
Snap a selfie at the ballot box, earn a discount at the gym or a cocktail bar. That student-inspired initiative was just one of many efforts being made to get Israelis to vote.
They seemed to be having some effect.
As of 8 p.m., officials said 63.7 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots, up from 61.3 percent at the same time during the April election, and 62.4 percent at the same time in 2015.
Concerned about election fatigue so soon after the last campaign, the parties appearing on Tuesday’s ballot, election officials and even a group of Israeli celebrity chefs made videos, took to the airwaves and sent recorded messages to voters’ cellphones with increasingly frantic pleas for them to go to polling stations.
Election Day is a day off in Israel and Tuesday was ideal beach weather. So some party leaders hit the sand.
Experts said which blocs of voters had the strongest turnout would most likely determine the outcome.
In April, by the close of voting, 68.5 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots, down from more than 72 percent in 2015. Turnout in Arab districts was 49 percent, one of the lowest on record.
Analysts say a lower turnout generally favors fringe and ultra-Orthodox parties, whose supporters are more ideologically committed or driven by narrow interests.
A guide to the major voting blocs.
A higher turnout among Arab voters could increase the opposition’s chances of blocking the formation of another right-wing, religious coalition led by Mr. Netanyahu.
Netanyahu breaks rules in the final sprint.
Mr. Netanyahu was leaving nothing to chance in seeking victory, and seemingly no rule unbroken.
His Facebook account’s chatbot was suspended for several hours midday on Tuesday at the request of Israeli officials, after it violated regulations barring the publishing of voter surveys on Election Day. The bot was reinstated after a Likud leader, the lawmaker David Bitan, promised it would not repeat the offense.
It was the second time in a week that Facebook shut down Mr. Netanyahu’s messenger bot: On Thursday it was disabled for 24 hours for violating hate speech rules after it sent a message saying that Israel’s Arab politicians “want to destroy us all.”
Mr. Netanyahu also broke a law prohibiting candidates from promoting themselves from 7 p.m. on the eve of the election through the end of voting Tuesday, the Israeli news media reported. He gave at least two radio interviews, according to Ynet, one of them after being warned not to by the Central Elections Committee.
Likud operatives also persuaded an Israeli television station to report that the party was installing surveillance cameras at “dozens” of polling places in Arab areas, The Times of Israel reported, an apparent effort to suppress Arab turnout.
The station at first reported that the cameras were capable of facial recognition, but other news outlets cast doubt on that and noted that the station only showed two men setting up one camera in a village near Nazareth.
It appeared that coverage of the stunt was the primary goal, in the hopes of discouraging Arab citizens from turning up to vote, The Times of Israel concluded.
Mr. Gantz’s Blue and White party said that its website had been the victim of a “significant cyberattack.” It said a so-called distributed-denial-of-service attack mounted from “various servers abroad” had made more than 500 attempted breaches.
That type of cyberattack involves disrupting or blocking traffic to a website by overwhelming it with traffic. The attack shut down the party’s website, leaving it with a blank screen for a time.
At this time, the perpetrator is unknown.
With no clear winner, eyes turn to Israel’s president.
With exit polls showing no clear winner in the election, the spotlight is likely to swing to President Reuven Rivlin.
The presidency is largely ceremonial, but one of its few powers is the authority to assign a candidate to form a government. That privilege usually goes to the leader of the party with the most votes, or alternatively, to the candidate with the best chance of building a coalition with at least 61 of the 120 seats in Parliament. Under the law, that can be any elected legislator.
Given that the last election failed to produce a new government, there is tremendous pressure on Mr. Rivlin to choose someone who can assemble a governing majority and to do it quickly.
In a video message on the eve of Tuesday’s election, Mr. Rivlin pledged that he would do all he could, within the law, to ensure the speedy formation of a government and to prevent a third election.
And after polls closed on Tuesday night, he tweeted that he would begin the process “as soon as possible.”
He is also under pressure to be transparently fair, given his thorny history with Mr. Netanyahu.
Before Mr. Rivlin was elected president in 2014, Mr. Netanyahu, a fellow Likud party member, did little to hide his distaste for him. Mr. Netanyahu tried for months to block Mr. Rivlin’s candidacy, and even examined the possibility of abolishing the presidency.
Given their background of deep, mutual loathing, the prospect that Mr. Rivlin could use his discretionary powers to bypass Mr. Netanyahu has alarmed the prime minister. Before the April election, he accused Mr. Rivlin of conspiring to replace him.
Mr. Rivlin, a former Parliament speaker, has used his presidential perch to rebuke Mr. Netanyahu on several occasions, championing democratic values, a free press and law enforcement officials even as Mr. Netanyahu, facing possible indictment in three corruption cases, has tried to undermine them.
After the April election, and as the late May deadline for forming a government approached, Mr. Netanyahu, one lawmaker short of a majority, deprived Mr. Rivlin of the opportunity to offer someone else a chance to form a government by moving swiftly to dissolve Parliament and force a new election.
If there is a similar deadlock this time, Mr. Rivlin may find a way to move faster — possibly by not granting the traditional two-week extension for coalition negotiations, or by working to forge a unity government including the main rivals, Likud and Blue and White. That, in turn, could increase Mr. Gantz’s leverage in demanding that Mr. Netanyahu step aside.
Israeli voters decide Benjamin Netanyahu’s fate.
Israelis are voting on Tuesday for the second time in five months in parliamentary elections that may end the storied career of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or deliver him a new lease on power.
Mr. Netanyahu won a plurality in April but was unable to muster a governing coalition, forcing an unprecedented do-over vote on Tuesday.
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu, 69, has promised to keep Israel safe by battling Iran’s proxies across the region and promoting his close relationship with President Trump. The American president has showered him with political favors, including moving the United States Embassy to Jerusalem.
Mr. Netanyahu has had to fend off corruption charges. With an indictment expected within weeks, he has extracted promises from his right-wing and ultrareligious allies to support legislation granting him immunity from prosecution if he is able to form a new government.
His opponents — led by Benny Gantz, 60, a centrist former army chief from the Blue and White party — have urged Israelis to send Mr. Netanyahu into retirement and promised to heal social divisions that they say he has exploited for political gain.
A major issue in this contest is whether Israelis want their country to become more or less religious.
Avigdor Liberman, a Netanyahu ally-turned-nemesis, has attacked the prime minister’s reliance on ultrareligious parties and styled himself a champion of Israel’s many nonreligious Jews. Mr. Liberman has positioned himself to be a kingmaker in coalition talks, offering to support whichever candidate agrees to cut the ultrareligious parties out of power.
Mr. Netanyahu sounds the alarm …
If Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign boiled down to two arguments — his own indispensability to Israel, and the danger that his defeat would bring to power a “weak, left-wing” government with the participation of Arab politicians — his approach grew increasingly frenzied as Election Day drew near.
Spreading fear about Arab citizens, he mounted a campaign against voter fraud and tried unsuccessfully to enact a law allowing Likud members to take video at polling places. Opponents called it a transparent attempt at intimidation and vote suppression.
Faced with damaging reports about his corruption cases, he tried to stage a boycott of Channel 12, Israel’s most popular broadcaster, though he relented and gave the station an interview on Saturday.
And in an attempt to siphon off right-wing votes, he staged a live television announcement of what amounted to no more than a campaign promise, saying he would push to annex the Jordan Valley, a swath of Palestinian territory that makes up a good portion of the West Bank. But even some supporters rolled their eyes, pointing to other breathless campaign promises that were never fulfilled.
On Monday, Mr. Netanyahu released a barrage of new ads and personal video appeals, delivering messages that seemed to bracket the sacred and the profane for each audience. An ad aimed at young secular Tel Aviv residents noted that Election Day was a day off from work, and warned that if they lolled around in bed and didn’t vote, the left would use that time to seize power.
Hours later, Mr. Netanyahu was on Facebook Live from the Western Wall — for Jews, one of the holiest places on Earth — wearing a kipa and declaring himself “overcome with emotion” as he touched its stones and sought to “continue and work for a glorious country.”
… And so does everyone else
Mr. Netanyahu is known for his “gevalt” tactics in the final days of a campaign, in which he warns his supporters that all will be lost if they don’t race to the polls. But even as his rivals dismissed his dire warnings as both false and desperate, they were sounding their own alarms.
Yamina, a right-wing party, objected to Mr. Netanyahu’s effort to “drink up” the votes of its supporters, but also acknowledged that it was working and pleaded with conservative Israelis to vote Yamina to hold Mr. Netanyahu to his promises of annexing West Bank land and building new settlements. Labor warned that it was in danger of vanishing from Parliament if its supporters failed to go to the polls.
For the left-wing Democratic Union, the election was the “last chance to save Israeli democracy.” And for the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism, Mr. Gantz and his running mate, Yair Lapid, were “the destroyers and annihilators of religion who want to bring about a holocaust,” according to one aged rabbi who spoke at a mass rally on Sunday. (Mr. Lapid said that his grandfather was murdered in Hitler’s gas chambers, and demanded that Mr. Netanyahu condemn the remark.)
Mr. Gantz, for his part, framed the election as a choice between “an extreme government” in which the racist fringe party Otzma Yehudit is granted a cabinet seat, or a “secular, broad-based unity government.” He also promised to heal the divides in Israeli society, saying, “Eighty percent of the country’s citizens agree on 80 percent of the issues.”
The mood in Tel Aviv: Anxious, yet hopeful.
The path into a girls’ religious school near the beach in Tel Aviv was a gauntlet of activists from half a dozen parties offering stickers and fliers along with last-minute campaign pleas.
Election Day in Israel is decidedly low-tech. Voters step behind a tall cardboard screen, choose a paper slip with the name of a political party, seal it inside an envelope and then slide it into a ballot box.
There is no absentee voting. Benchail Yefet, 75, flew in from London early Tuesday, cutting short a trip. “I came here to save Labor from falling below the electoral threshold,” he said.
His brother Yossi Yefet, 56, was still wavering, but settled on the right-wing Yamina party.
“It will be a miracle if we see a change today,” said their sister, Agada Yefet, 69, also a Labor voter.
The siblings, who planned to watch the results together Tuesday night, expressed concern that nothing would be resolved. “I think we’ll have a third election,” Ms. Yefet said.
Outside the school, activists from the Democratic Union cheered, waving rainbow and Israeli flags and banging on drums as they ushered in a party leader, Stav Shaffir, 34, who is a rock star among young left-wingers.
After Ms. Shaffir had voted and left with her entourage, Ana Lobuznova, 21, rolled up on a bike. Fresh out of the army, this was her first time voting.
“I moved to Israel from Russia seven years ago, and there you don’t vote because, you know, Putin,” she said. “Your vote doesn’t actually matter.”
“I thought it was the same here, but now I understand: I can make a difference,” she added. Ms. Lobuznova said she had backed the centrist Blue and White party, “because they have the best chance of getting rid of Bibi.” — Yardena Schwartz
In Nazareth, a focus on Arab rights.
In Nazareth, the unofficial capital of Israel’s Arab minority, voters said they were backing the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties because that was the only slate that represented their interests.
Many said they hoped greater Arab representation in Parliament would lead to more effective policies for Arab citizens, who make up a fifth of Israel’s population.
The wish list includes a crackdown on crime, violence and illegal weapons in Arab towns, an end to house demolitions and the cancellation of the Nation-State Law that the Parliament passed last year. The law enshrined the right of national self-determination as “unique to the Jewish people” — not all Israel’s citizens — and effectively downgraded the status of the Arabic language. It was denounced by liberal Israelis as anti-democratic and racist.
But most of all, Arab voters appeared to be hoping their ballot would help oust Mr. Netanyahu.
Nassim Mussalam, 60, a projects engineer, said he wanted “to stop seeing or hearing Netanyahu,” as well as the prime minister’s family, and to bring an end to his government’s “racist laws.”
In April’s election, Arab turnout was 49 percent, one of the lowest on record. The parties making up the Joint List ran separately and won a total of 10 seats in the short-lived Parliament. Having reunited into the Joint List, its leader, Ayman Odeh, hoped for a much larger turnout that could help topple Mr. Netanyahu.
Arriving to vote with his family in the Kababir neighborhood of Haifa on Tuesday morning, Mr. Odeh said being “first-class voters” would help the Arabs become “first-class citizens.” — Mohammed Najib
David M. Halbfinger is the Jerusalem bureau chief, covering Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and the Middle East. @halbfinger