Israelis voted Tuesday in a high-stakes election that will decide whether to extend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's long right-wing tenure despite corruption allegations or to replace him with an ex-military chief new to politics.
The vote was expected to be close and likely lead to frantic negotiations to form a coalition once results are in, with opinion polls having shown Netanyahu best placed to do so.
Polls were to close at 1900 GMT in most areas and exit surveys will be released afterward. Final results were expected early Wednesday.
Ex-military chief Benny Gantz has mounted a strong challenge to the veteran prime minister by brandishing his security credentials while pledging to undo damage he says Netanyahu has inflicted on the country with divisive politics.
"I'm happy to stand for the good of the citizens on a new path," Gantz said after casting his ballot in his hometown of Rosh Haayin.
Netanyahu voted later in Jerusalem and urged Israelis to "choose well."
"This is a sacred act, the essence of democracy, and we should be thankful for that," he said.
The election was in many ways a referendum on the 69-year-old who has built a reputation as guarantor of the country's security and economic growth, but whose populism and alleged corruption have left many ready for change.
He has engaged in populist rhetoric that critics say amounts to the demonization of Arab Israelis and others.
He faced further criticism on election day when members of his Likud party brought small cameras into polling stations in Arab areas.
Arab politicians called it an attempt at intimidation, while Likud officials and Netanyahu said cameras would stop fraud from occurring.
True to form, Netanyahu issued a deeply controversial pledge only three days before the election, saying he planned to annex settlements in the occupied West Bank should he win.
Extending Israeli sovereignty on a large-scale in the West Bank could be the death knell to already fading hopes for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
It is a move long-sought by Israel's far-right.
- 'Power too long' -
Ronit Kampf, a 45-year-old university professor, was among the first to cast ballots at a Jerusalem polling station and said she was concerned by the corruption allegations.
"Bibi has been in power too long," she said, using Netanyahu's nickname. "There is going to be a big change."
At another Jerusalem polling station, Shahar Levinson, who had arrived with his wife and three young children, said he was voting for Likud and wanted a government that was "right-wing and capitalist."
Netanyahu has sought to portray himself as Israel's essential statesman in the run up to the vote and highlighted his bond with U.S. President Donald Trump.
He has spoken of Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and of Israel's claim of sovereignty over the Golan Heights.
He has also used Trump-like tactics, calling the corruption investigations a "witch hunt" and denouncing journalists covering them.
On Tuesday, he continually warned Likud was at risk of losing over what he said was low turnout among supporters, claims widely seen as a bid to motivate right-wing voters.
At one point, he issued the warnings to beachgoers in the city of Netanya in sunny spring weather, with his party distributing the video.
He said on Tuesday afternoon he was canceling an event and calling an "emergency meeting" with party officials over the issue.
By 4:00pm (1300 GMT), overall turnout was 42.8 percent compared to 45.4 percent at the same time in 2015 elections.
Gantz, a 59-year-old former paratrooper who has formed a centrist alliance, has invoked the corruption allegations against the premier to make his case that it is time for him to go.
He has called Netanyahu's annexation pledge an "irresponsible" bid for votes.
Gantz says he favors a "globally backed peace agreement" that sees Israel hold on to the large West Bank settlement blocs and maintain security control over the territory.
He opposes unilateral moves.
Gantz has sought to overcome Netanyahu's experience by allying with two other former military chiefs of staff and ex-finance minister Yair Lapid to form his Blue and White alliance.
On Tuesday, Gantz took the opposite strategy to Netanyahu, saying "we are going to win ... One final push and we're going to get it done."
- Neck-and-neck -
Opinion polls have given Netanyahu's Likud and Blue and White a similar number of seats in the 120-seat parliament, with both far short of an outright majority.
If polling trends hold, Netanyahu would be best placed to build a coalition thanks to smaller right-wing parties allied to him.
But there have been repeated warnings about the unreliability of opinion polls in the past.
Should Netanyahu win, he will be on track to surpass founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel's longest-serving prime minister later this year.
He has been premier for a total of more than 13 years.
If he does triumph, "King Bibi," as some have called him, faces the prospect of becoming the first sitting prime minister to be indicted.
The attorney general has announced he intends to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust pending an upcoming hearing.
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