• Israelis are voting Tuesday in parliamentary elections that could keep Benjamin Netanyahu, the polarizing, right-wing prime minister, in power, or turn control over to his main rival, Benny Gantz, a newcomer to electoral politics who is seen as a centrist. At stake is the future of both Israel and the Palestinian territories.
• The first indication of how the election went is expected after 3 p.m. Eastern Time, when voting ends in Israel and exit polls are released.
• If he wins a fourth consecutive term, Mr. Netanyahu, 69, could make history in a number of ways: In July, he would become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister; he has vowed to annex parts of the West Bank, reversing half a century of policy and setting back prospects for a Palestinian state; and he could also become the first sitting prime minister to be indicted.
• While Mr. Netanyahu has appealed primarily to the right, Mr. Gantz, 59, a retired lieutenant general and former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, has reached out for allies across the political spectrum. He has sought to make Mr. Netanyahu’s expected indictment on corruption charges the main issue.
How it works
Voters cast ballots for parties, not candidates. Thirty-nine parties are participating. The percentage of the vote determines a party’s number of seats in the Knesset, or Parliament. Any party needs at least 3.25 percent of the vote for a seat.
Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party and Mr. Gantz’s Blue and White alliance are expected to gain more seats than any other group. But each will fall far short of achieving a 61-seat majority on its own, meaning that a new government will almost certainly be formed by a multiparty coalition.
[See our guide to the Israeli elections.]
Members of Israel’s military were allowed to vote up to 72 hours in advance. The rest of the country’s 6.3 million eligible voters can cast ballots at more than 10,700 polling stations across the country, including hospitals and prisons, between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. (midnight to 3 p.m. Eastern).
Except for diplomats posted abroad, Israeli citizens cannot cast absentee ballots. Those who wish to vote must travel to Israel.
Likud wins the most seats. Mr. Netanyahu’s party might be able to reach a majority with the help of smaller right-wing parties.
Blue and White wins the most seats. Mr. Gantz and his partners might be able to reach a majority with a combination of smaller parties on the left and right.
Unity government of Likud plus Blue and White. While Mr. Gantz has vowed never to serve in a government led by Mr. Netanyahu, there has been speculation that their parties might negotiate to form a unity government if neither can attain the sufficient number of seats. Such a possibility would increase if some smaller parties needed by Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz fail to make the 3.25 percent threshold.
Any party that wins at least 3.25 percent of the vote gets at least three seats in Parliament, but if parties don’t pass that threshold — and many smaller parties do not — their votes are discarded.
Netanyahu’s ‘gevalt’ grenades
Mr. Netanyahu has shown a penchant for appealing to anti-Arab racism in the finales of Israeli elections, aimed at whipping up the extreme right to fend off challengers and protect his parliamentary majority.
During the 2015 election, Mr. Netanyahu beseeched right-wing voters to cast ballots after a coalition of Israeli Arab parties announced that early voter participation by its supporters had tripled. He posted a video on his Facebook page expressing alarm that Israeli Arabs were “being bused to the polling stations in droves” by left-wing groups.
In what critics are calling a similar appeal to the right in this election, Mr. Netanyahu unexpectedly promised to begin extending Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank if re-elected. The move would almost certainly doom a two-state solution.
[In seeking re-election, Mr. Netanyahu put the West Bank on the ballot.]
Late Monday, he even trotted out his American pollster to attest to his contention that the small number of Likud voters who fail to cast their ballots on Tuesday could cost him the election.
Israelis have a term for Mr. Netanyahu’s late surprises: the “gevalt campaign,” a reference to the Yiddish term for incredulity.
The clock ticks for undecided voters
At lunchtime in Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem, Snir Moshe, 25, was still mulling his options.
“On the one hand it’s a country of Jews,” he said, expressing fear that a vote for Mr. Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party could lead to the removal of West Bank settlements territorial withdrawals.
On the other hand, said Mr. Moshe, who voted for Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party in 2015, “Blue and White could make social change, economic change. So I have a few more hours to decide.”
There was no reliable data on last-minute waverers, but Mr. Moshe was hardly alone.
Some deliberated between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Gantz. Others deliberated between a strategic vote for a large party or an ideological vote for a smaller one, but in a neck-and-neck race, many felt they did not have the luxury of voting for a boutique party.
A Hebrew news website, Mako, offered help with an app that quizzed undecided voters about their positions and then offered political guidance.
Miriam Alarkry, 78, had been wavering between Likud and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which she usually voted for. In the end she went with Likud, she said, “because it’s the government.”
By 6 p.m. Tuesday, around 52 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballot, with four hours to go before polls closed. Voter turnout was slightly lower than the 2015 election, in which 54.6 percent of eligible voters had cast their ballot by that hour.
Political analysts said the turnout in Arab areas of Israel, where citizens have become disillusioned with Israeli politics and with their own politicians, appeared to be headed for a historic low.
Taking advantage of the public holiday, many Israelis were out enjoying the sunshine, packing beaches and national parks. Mr. Netanyahu turned up at the seaside in Netanya and called on his supporters to go vote and swim later. Some said they would do so after sundown.
One Tel Aviv eatery was offering Election Day specials: a “hamburgantz” dedicated to Benny Gantz, served with Gouda cheese and a fried egg; and “Bibi cigars” — phyllo pastry rolls stuffed with lamb — a reference to the cigars that the police say Mr. Netanyahu accepted as gifts from wealthy businessmen who sought official favors.
All eyes on Israel’s president
President Reuven Rivlin is responsible for formally asking one of the party leaders to form a government based on the outcome of the vote and strength of the possible coalitions. Even if Mr. Gantz’s alliance is slightly ahead of Mr. Netanyahu’s, the president could still ask Mr. Netanyahu to form a government if Likud’s likely allies would give him a stronger coalition.
This happened in the 2009 election, when Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud had 27 seats but the rival Kadima party had 28. The Kadima leader, Tzipi Livni, could not form a coalition, but Mr. Netanyahu could. He has been prime minister ever since.
It is less certain what Mr. Rivlin would do if Mr. Netanyahu had a numerical advantage in forming a coalition but Likud itself trailed Mr. Gantz’s alliance by four or five seats. Mr. Gantz’s supporters argued that Mr. Rivlin would feel pressure in that case to acknowledge the people’s most popular choice and allow Mr. Gantz the chance to form a government.
In Gaza, imagining an election, with envy
Mohammad al-Saptie, 28, has never voted. He envied Israel’s democratic system, he said in Gaza City, as people a few miles away cast their ballots for the fifth time since the last election in Gaza, in 2006.
Mr. al-Saptie, a deliveryman, daydreamed aloud about what a free election might mean for Gaza and how he might choose a party or a candidate to support.
He thought about his 20-month-old daughter, Warda, and about the three wars he has lived through — not counting the 2007 civil war in which the militant group Hamas, which won the 2006 Palestinian elections but had been prevented from taking power by the rival Fatah faction, seized control in Gaza.
“I would vote for a government that can negotiate, make peace and reach a solution with Israel,” Mr. al-Saptie said, “because we do not want blood, murder, death and destruction.”
Like many Palestinians here, Mr. al-Saptie said he was frustrated by Hamas, whose takeover precipitated the Israeli blockade of Gaza that continues to this day. He said he wished Gaza’s various armed factions could be brought under the control of leaders with stronger public support.
“The differences among the people and among leaders are great, and there is hatred,” he said.
His aspirations, he said, are simple: “Security, safety and jobs. We do not want more than this.”