Jerusalem, Mar 17: Millions of Israelis on Tuesday voted in a general election that has turned into a referendum on the six-year rule of embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is fighting an all out battle to secure a record fourth term and defeat a spirited campaign by an united opposition.
Voting began at 7 AM and a record number of 13.7 per cent voters turned out in the first three hours - over 20 per cent higher than voter turnout in previous two elections. By 2 PM, an estimated 36.7 per cent of voters cast their ballots at polling stations throughout Israel.
Ballots are for political parties rather than individual candidates. Israel has a proportional representation system, meaning a coalition government is likely to be formed within its 120-seat Knesset, or parliament. Election is being held for all the 120 seats.
In the current Parliament Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party has 18 seats. About 5.9 million voters are eligible to vote and are casting their ballot across the over 10,000 voting stations.
A high voter turnout is expected this time after general turnout in polls have been on the decline since 1999 till when it used to be close to 80 per cent. In a last-ditch effort to woo rightwing voters, 65-year- old Netanyahu last night ruled out a Palestinian state, backtracking from his own six-year-old policy.
Netanyahu, whose campaign focused on Israel's security and Iranian nuclear threat, today appeal to hard-liners to rush to the polling booths, saying high Arab voter turnout was endangering his right wing party's dominance. "Arab voters are going to the polls in droves. Left wing organisations are bringing them in buses," he said.
Amid signs that his six-year rule could be in jeopardy, the hawkish prime minister called on supporters to vote for him to "narrow the gap" between Likud and the Zionist Union. Four Arab parties are fighting under one banner for the first time and they could become a factor in the coalition- building.
Israeli Arabs make up 20 per cent of the population. Netanyahu's main rival, 54-year-old Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog has promised to repair ties with the Palestinians and the international community and also deal with middle class issues such as price rise. Herzog's centrist Zionist Union was ahead in the recent opinion polls by about four seats.
The surveys show Netanyahu will have an advantage over his rival when it comes to piecing together a coalition with smaller allies from the right. Sensing an opportunity, the right-wing leader vowed to form a nationalist government while casting his ballot here.
The Israeli Premier also posted a notice on his Facebook page pledging to first invite Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett into his coalition after having tried to lure the right-wing party's supporters to vote for Likud. Netanyahu reiterated that he has no plans to form a unity government with the Zionist Union.
The incumbent, who led a fragile five party coalition government in this third term after winning polls in January 2013, called for early elections last year after his alliance splintered.
Netanyahu had about three years left in office when he called for elections with a hope to secure a record fourth term and improve the tally of his right-wing Likud party.
The election results will assume significance given the high inflation, instability in the strategic region and Israel's public image following Netanyahu's challenge to US President Barack Obama over Iranian nuclear issue.
The Israeli Premier has been constantly at loggerheads with President Obama and his recent efforts to undermine the US leader by addressing the Congress without coordinating with the White House has widened the rift. Netanyahu came to power for the first time in 1996 and held the premiership until his crushing defeat in the 1999 election.
He achieved a political comeback in 2009 and has been the premier ever since. Elections since 1999 have witnessed voters apathy with the turnout not even reaching 70 per cent.
Exit polls will be broadcast tonight on the three TV networks when the polling booths close with official results coming in through the night, but official results will not be presented to President Reuven Rivlin until March 25.
Under Israel's proportional representation system, any party can enter the Knesset if it receives over 3.25 per cent of the vote, which is equal to about four seats out of 120.
There are 25 lists (parties) contesting the polls in a reflection of Israel's diverse political map, but only 11 are expected to enter the Knesset.
The task of forming a government does not automatically fall to the party with the largest number of votes, but to the party leader with the best chance of cobbling together a coalition with a parliamentary majority of 61.
Netanyahu is hoping that the right-wing bloc will win majority of the seats which would make the President invite him to form the next government.
The Israeli prime Minister's campaign has focussed around his personality and ability to withstand international pressures to strengthen Israel's security, primarily saving the Jewish state from Iran's nuclear threat.
However, the voters this time seem to care less about it and socio-economic issues surrounding rising cost of housing, increasing cost of living etc. have gained prominence even putting the vexed issue of peace with Palestinians behind.
A number of smaller parties are also set to play the role of kingmaker or juggernaut, including Kulanu, led by defected Likud party leader Moshe Kahlon, who is expected to snatch up to 10 per cent votes and could swing to either side.
Some of the Arab leaders have been quoted in the media as saying that they may recommend Herzog's name for Prime Ministership but will not join the coalition.