TEL AVIV, Israel — Just over 5.8 million citizens are eligible to vote in Tuesday’s closely-fought election, choosing candidates for Israel’s 20th parliament since 1949. As current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fights for his political survival, here’s what you need to know — from candidates to coalitions.
When do polls close, and what happens next?
High turnout was reported on Tuesday, with voters waiting in lines of up to one and a half hours to cast their ballots. Israel’s 10,300 polling stations will close at 10 p.m. local time (4 p.m. ET) and exit polls on Channel One, Channel Two and Channel Ten will give a quick indication of the likely results. However, results are not expected until early Wednesday if not later.
Under Israel’s proportional electoral system, no party has ever won the 61 seats needed for an outright majority in the 120-member parliament — and it typically takes weeks of negotiations for a governing coalition to be formed.
How does it work?
1,280 candidates are taking part in Tuesday’s poll, representing 26 parties including Netanyahu’s Likud, Isaac Herzog’s Labor and Yesh Atid — "There is a Future" — led by former TV news anchor Yair Lapid.
Others include Arab and ultra-Orthodoz Jewish parties. Of the 5.8 million eligible voters, about 800,000 are Arabs.
Candidates represent national parties, not electoral districts or local constituencies. Seats in the Knesset are allocated in proportion to each party's percentage of the total national vote.
Some parties have already made pacts, including Labor and the liberal movement Hatnuah, led by Tzipi Livni, which have campaigned under a joint banner called Zionist Union.
Polls indicate Likud and Zionist Union are running neck-and-neck, with each predicted to win around 24 seats.
Who are the key candidates?
Popularly known as "Bibi," Netanyahu, 65, is seeking a fourth term as prime minister as head of right-wing Likud. He has made security a main issue of his campaign, straining a frayed relationship with the U.S. administration by speaking in Congress against a nuclear deal with Iran. Netanyahu's policy of continuing to build homes for Jewish settlers on land that Palestinians seek for a state, and the breakdown of peace talks with the Palestinians in April last year, have put him at loggerheads with many of Israel's traditional allies.
While neck-and-neck in the polls with the center-left, Netanyahu is still seen as the person most likely to cobble together a coalition of like-minded parties on the right. After casting his ballot early Tuesday, Netanyahu ruled out any coalition talks with Herzog, indicating he would instead pick up the phone to other parties including far-right Jewish Home.
Leader of Labor and co-leader of the center-left Zionist Union, Herzog is an Israeli blue blood — the son of a former president, grandson of a renowned rabbi and nephew of one Israel's most notable foreign ministers. He has agreed to a two-year rotation as prime minister, sharing with Zionist Union partner Tzipi Livni, should they lead the next government.
Fired by Netanyahu in December after cabinet infighting over government policies, Livni — a centrist who served as justice minister and chief peace negotiator with the Palestinians — seemed destined for the political wilderness until she struck the partnership deal with Herzog.
A leading advocate of a two-state solution with the Palestinians, Livni, 56, has pledged to seek ways to resume peace talks and repair ties with the U.S. administration.
Once a heartthrob television news anchor, Lapid, 51, was the rising star of Israeli politics in the 2013 election but lost some momentum after falling out with Netanyahu. He has not ruled out participation in either a Likud or Zionist Union-led coalition.
Bennett, leader of the far-right Jewish Home party, emerged as a surprise success story in the 2013 election, advocating annexation of more than half of the occupied West Bank and calling a Palestinian state "suicide" for Israel. Born in Israel to parents from San Francisco, Bennett spent years in the United States before he sold his anti-fraud software company to a U.S. security firm for $145 million.
Though the Arab candidate is not well-known to most Jewish Israelis, the party he heads — the Joint Arab List — is consistently gaining momentum in the polls. This is the first time Israel's four Arab parties have united under one banner and they are predicted to win around 13 seats in parliament. Odeh has said his party would sit in opposition and not join a government after the election, no matter who wins. But he may still help to decide the winner of the election if he recommends that the nation's president nominate Herzog over Netanyahu.
A former communications minister, Kahlon delighted Israelis by promoting competition in the cellular market, a move that slashed the prices of mobile telephone services. Formerly a Likud politician, he broke ranks after social protests in 2011 and formed a new centrist party, Kulanu (All of Us), in January, and could be a kingmaker in coalition-building after the election if he secures the 10 seats polls predict.
Israel's foreign minister, Moldovan-born Lieberman, 56, heads the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party. His controversial policies include imposing a loyalty oath on Israel's Arab minority and trading Israeli-Arab towns to any future Palestinian state for territory in the occupied West Bank where Jewish settlements have been built.
What will be the impact of this vote?
Herzog has promised to repair relations with Israel’s allies, particularly the Palestinians and the United States, and to reduce domestic inequality. "Whoever wants change, hope, and really a better future for Israel, will vote the Zionist Union led by me,” he said after voting early Tuesday.
His running mate, Livni, emphasized the need for Israel to repair relations. "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.”
That message means a Zionist Union victory is likely to be embraced by the White House, with U.S.-Israel relations currently at their lowest point in decades. However, Herzog has not promised a peace settlement or a resolution to the stand-off over Iran's nuclear program.
If Netanyahu were to be re-elected, peace efforts in the region would certainly prove difficult to restart. He favors the creation of more settlements, while Washington views the establishment of a Palestinian state as a pillar of its Mideast policy — a position shared by other key western allies.
How is a coalition chosen?
After the official parliamentary election result is published, Israel’s president usually invites the leader of the party with the largest number of seats to form a government within 42 days.
If the leader forms a coalition, the Knesset holds a vote of confidence in that group and the government is approved by a vote of at least 61 members.
If the leader fails to form a coalition, the president can choose the leader of another party to do so. This was the case in the 2009 elections when Livni failed to form a government despite having one more seat than Likud.
Alastair Jamieson reported from London. The Associated Press contributed to this report.