JERUSALEM • Israelis cast their votes yesterday in an election that could hand right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a record fifth term or see him dethroned by a former general who has pledged clean government and social cohesion.
During the campaign leading up to polling day, the rival parties waged a vitriolic online battle, accusing each other of spreading corruption and bigotry, as well as being soft on security.
Mr Netanyahu's closest rival in the campaign is Mr Benny Gantz, a former chief of the armed forces. Mr Gantz's centrist Blue and White party, which includes other former generals, has challenged Mr Netanyahu's hitherto unrivalled national security credentials.
After an election eve visit to the Western Wall, Mr Netanyahu, 69, voted at a polling station in Jerusalem yesterday morning, accompanied by his wife, Sara.
"This is truly the essence of democracy and we should be blessed with it," he said, shaking hands with election officials and posing for selfies.
Casting his vote in Rosh Ha'ayin near Tel Aviv, Mr Gantz, 59, said: "This is a day of hope, a day of unity. I look into everyone's eyes and know that we can connect."
The victor may not be decided immediately after voting ends.
The elections committee has up to April 17 to announce the final official results after ruling on any appeals or legal challenges.
No party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-seat Parliament, meaning days or even weeks of coalition negotiations lie ahead.
One factor may be the turnout of voters from Israel's 21 per cent Arab minority.
Many were angered by Israel's nation-state law, passed last year, which declared that only Jews have the right of self-determination in the country. Mr Netanyahu supported the legislation.
Voting at a polling station in Rosh Ha'ayin, gynaecologist Yaron Zalel, 64, said he supported Mr Gantz.
"Netanyahu did a lot of great things for Israel, really, a lot of great things. But he is 13 years in power and enough is enough," he said.
Backing Mr Netanyahu was another voter at the same polling station, Professor Avi Gur, 65, a lecturer at Ariel University in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
"Very excited, very excited. I hope that rightism will win," he said, adding that the Likud leader was "the best prime minister there has ever been" in Israel.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE