Israelis go to the polls on Tuesday to vote in a national election that could see incumbent right-wing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu secure a fourth consecutive term in office – making him the longest-serving premier in the country’s history.
The campaign trail for the 120-seat Knesset has been a fraught one. It has been blighted by cross-border flare-ups with Gaza that have nearly tipped into war, and the possible indictment of Netanyahu on corruption charges.
What is going to happen?
Israel’s 6 million or so eligible voters have from 8am until 10pm on Tuesday to vote. We expect preliminary exit poll results at 10pm local time (8pm GMT) with the final results being announced the early hours of Wednesday morning.
No single party has ever won an outright majority in the Knesset: coalition building is the norm. Once the winner is announced they begin talks with Israel’s president to try to form a government. In the last election in 2015 it took Netanyahu and his Likud Party four weeks to pull together enough support from other parties to get a majority of seats.
Who’s on the ballot?
The election has been dominated by the right-wing Likud party and its leader Netanyahu. The former Israeli army commando has become a divisive figure for his hardline stance against the Palestinians and more recently the multitude of potential corruption cases against him.
That said, he has also won significant support among Israelis for overseeing the move of the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and the recent decision by US president Donald Trump to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.
His main rival is elections newcomer Benny Gantz, the country’s former chief-of-staff who led the 2014 military campaign in Gaza. Gantz formed the Blue and White Party, a powerful centrist alliance with opposition figure Yair Lapid, as well as two other ex-army chiefs.
There have been some unexpected wild cards taking centre stage. The newly formed far-right Zehut party, led by firebrand Orthodox settler Moshe Feiglin, has surged in popularity on the back of its promise to decriminalise cannabis. Final polls released on Friday showed the party securing as many as six seats, which could make them coalition lynchpins.
Who is expected to win?
Although polls in Israel have been proven to be wrong in the past, in the final surveys published on Friday, all bar two show Gantz’s Blue and White Party beating the Likud by a very narrow margin, on average 30 to 28 seats.
That said, every single poll shows that the right bloc (which is more likely to be led by Likud) will sweep to victory over the left. It remains to be seen whether the Blue and White Party will be able to hold on to their narrow lead, and then whether it can draw together enough support from other parties to form a coalition.
In a distant third is Israel’s Labour Party with around 10 seats.
What are the most controversial issues?
Netanyahu’s decision to oversee a merger of his key coalition partner Jewish Home with Jewish Power sparked outcry from all sides of the political divide, including powerful pro-Israeli lobby groups in America.
Jewish Power is an offshoot of the banned Kach movement, which was outlawed by Israel and the US because of its racist and extremist views. Many fear if Netanyahu wins, Israel will have its most right-wing, ultra-nationalist government of all time.
Netanyahu further courted controversy by vowing to annex the occupied West Bank in a recent TV interview, with many warning this would end all chance of peace with the Palestinians and damage Israel’s security, diplomatic and economic interests. While pre-elections promises in Israel are notoriously apocryphal, commentators in Israeli papers warned he may be forced to follow through with his promise.
Gantz has not avoided controversy either. Aside from rumours his phone was hacked by the Iranians, he was criticised in pro-Palestinian quarters for a pre-elections campaign video.
The short clip showed a running death toll of Gazans who were killed during the 2014 war that he oversaw.
For Israel’s 1.9 million Arab population, cancelling or altering the controversial nation-state law has been at the heart of their elections demands and has also driven an elections boycott campaign.
The legislation promotes the creation of Jewish-only settlements, removes Arabic as an official language and defines national self-determination as “the unique right of the Jewish people”.
On more lighthearted matters, legalising cannabis has become a big elections hot topic with parties like Zehut storming to popularity with this demand as their main ballot battle cry.
Are the corruption cases against Netanyahu and the chance of indictment impacting the elections?
Surprisingly the February announcement by Israeli attorney general Avichai Mandelblit that he planned to charge Netanyahu in three corruption cases has had little impact on the leader’s popularity in the polls.
Netanyahu, who denies all the charges, is set to face a pre-trial hearing after the elections which Mandelblit will issues his final decision. If he is indicted, Netanyahu will be the first serving Israeli prime minister to stand trial while in office.
That said, most of his coalition partners have vowed to stick by him.
What is at stake for Israelis?
For many secular or left-leaning Israelis there are concerns that another Netanyahu government will be the most right-wing and hawkish yet, particularly given the relationship with the far-right Jewish Power party. That said, many are unclear what a Gantz-led government would look like, given he has been fairly vague and has ex-Likud figures on his party.
What does this mean for the Palestinians?
There are fears Netanyahu will follow through with his threats to extend Israeli sovereignty over the occupied West Bank, particularly after Trump’s Golan Heights announcement.
On the other hand Netanyahu has repeatedly pulled back from launching a full military operation in Gaza, which is something Gantz and other parties have criticised him for.