TEL AVIV, Israel — Voters waited in line for over an hour in some places Tuesday amid unusually high turnout in a parliamentary election pitching Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against centrist rivals including Isaac Herzog.
More than one quarter of eligible citizens had cast their ballot by midday local time (6 a.m. ET), according to Israel news site Ynet, which said turnout was so far at its highest since 1999.
The vote is being seen as a referendum of sorts for Netanyahu, whose focus on security has strained relations with the U.S.
At one polling station in Tel Aviv, families were among those waiting to choose Israel’s 20th parliament.
“Sometimes like in major companies you need to change the CEO and this is what we in Israel need, to change the current government,” said voter Ran, from Tel Aviv, who only gave one name.
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Netanyahu said the high turnout was due to a surge in votes from Israel's Arab citizens. In a last-minute appeal on Facebook for support for his right-wing Likud party, he accused left-wing groups of driving Arabs to polling stations in buses.
Polls are due to close at 10 p.m. local time (4 p.m. ET) but results are not expected until early Wednesday — and likely will be followed by coalition negotiations. Under Israel's electoral system, no party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-member parliament.
Netanyahu, who voted early, ruled out a coalition with Herzog in an interview with Channel 10. The prime minister — who began the three month election campaign in a strong position but has seen his standing in the polls slip — made a dramatic last-minute pledge late Monday to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.
His comments marked a reversal of long-standing pledges to the United States and were seen as a last-ditch attempt to appeal to hard-line voters. "We will work with the winner of the election," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Herzog's running mate, Tzipi Livni, emphasized the need for Israel to repair relations with the U.S. and neighbors. “The world will look at Israel and see a different Israel” if a Zionist Union coalition is elected, she told NBC News on Tuesday. She described “frustration” among voters at “the gap between the image of Israel and … what Israel really is and our values,” adding: “We need to bridge this gap.”
- Paul Goldman, Alastair Jamieson and Lawahez Jabari
The Associated Press contributed to this report.