"I am looking the people of Israel in the eyes and telling them, 'This change is possible,'" Gantz said as he cast his vote Tuesday. "Together we will take this new path. I call out to all of you — let's respect democracy and go vote.”
But with 40 parties competing, a government will need to be built from a variety of them. Polls suggest that a Netanyahu-led coalition is most likely to emerge but negotiations as part of that process are likely to take days or weeks.
If Netanyahu remains prime minister, he will embark on his fourth consecutive and fifth overall term and become Israel’s longest-serving leader, surpassing the country’s founding father David Ben-Gurion.
Here is a primer on the looming showdown as Israelis prepare to go to the ballot box.
Trump has been a steadfast of ally for Netanyahu, dubbed "King Bibi" by fans and detractors, even when compared to decades of close relations between the countries. Campaign billboards showing the two together underscore the point.
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Trump "seems to be aligned with Netanyahu on a whole host of issues, including some truly dramatic iconoclastic kinds of decisions," according to Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
July's passage of the “nation-state” law declaring only Jews had the right of self-determination and stripping Arabic of its designation as an official language alongside Hebrew was also decried by critics who say it institutionalized discrimination.
The prime minister, meanwhile, has targeted the “elite” and waged war on government institutions. More recently Netanyahu has criticized Gantz for being a "leftist" and his campaign has warned that the former military chief would form a coalition with Arab parties.
“Netanyahu's argument is taken from Trump's deep-state argument,” according to Gayil Talshir, a political scientist professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The message Netanyahu is sending his supporters is that the “left cannot defeat me through elections, so they try to oust me undemocratically through the police, courts and media,” she said.
National security is always a key issue in Israel.
Netanyahu's record of facing off threats on Israel’s borders, including from Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and keeping Israel on the sidelines of the Syrian civil war, remain among his most popular achievements. He has also earned plaudits for taking the country into only one major conflict — with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip in 2014.
But Israel has fought a series of wars with its Arab neighbors since its founding in 1948, leaving it isolated, so Netanyahu has been eager to highlight his outreach to leaders of Arab Gulf kingdoms. None of the countries have formal relations with Israel, but a shared antipathy toward Iran and eagerness to develop commercial ties have seen most soften their positions, while also quietly distancing themselves from the Palestinian cause.
Whether it is the around 20 percent of non-Jewish Israelis who have a right to vote, or those in the occupied West Bank and blockaded Gaza Strip, Palestinians have been absent from most campaigning.
In the run up to the election, Netanyahu has not offered a plan for what many believe is the country's most important challenge — what to do about millions of Palestinians under Israeli military occupation.
Gantz, meanwhile, has said spoken of "separation" and released a campaign video touting his achievement in bombing Gaza back to the “Stone Age.”
“For Palestinians — whether citizens of Israel or living under undemocratic Israeli military rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — these elections are the equivalent of a choice between Trump and Trump,” said Diana Buttu, a former adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and an Israeli citizen.
“This election will likely result in an even more extreme, right-wing extreme government than the last — which was the most right-wing in Israel's history: an outcome that does not bode well for Palestinians, the region, or the world,” she added.
F. Brinley Bruton reported from London, Paul Goldman from Tel Aviv and Lawahez Jabari from Jerusalem.
F. Brinley Bruton
F. Brinley Bruton is senior editor in charge of NBC News Digital’s London bureau.
Lawahez Jabari is a producer based in Tel Aviv. She has covered the Middle East conflict — on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides — for more than a decade.
Paul Goldman, Reuters and Associated Press contributed.