Benjamin Netanyahu spent Israel’s election day issuing increasingly frantic warnings that he was in danger of being defeated, as millions of Israelis went to the polls to decide whether he should continue his 13 years in power.
In what has become a familiar election playbook, Mr Netanyahu spent the final hours of voting telling Right-wing voters that they were complacent and in danger of waking up to a Leftist government if they did not turn out.
“Only you will decide whether a strong Right-wing government will be formed under my leadership or a weak Left-wing government,” he told supporters as he darted between campaign stops in Jerusalem.
Mr Netanyahu has made the same warnings ahead of each of his recent elections, leaving many Israelis to believe he is simply trying to maximum his vote and is not in any real danger of losing.
The prime minister also appeared to flout election laws by giving two radio interviews after voting had started and by publishing polling data on his Facebook account. Facebook temporarily supended a chatbot on his account in response.
Mr Netanyahu’s election rival, Benny Gantz, a former general who leads the centrist Blue & White party, spent much of the day in the liberal bastion of Tel Aviv, urging voters to cast the prime minister out of office.
“We will succeed in bringing hope, all of us together, without corruption and without extremism,” he said, a reference to the criminal corruption charges against Mr Netanyahu.
The prime minister faces a hearing next month where Israel’s attorney general will make a final decision on whether to bring charges on allegations that Mr Netanyahu manipulated media regulations to benefit a press mogul in return for favourable news coverage.
Mr Netanyahu denies wrongdoing.
The final polls of the election show Mr Netanyahu’s Likud and Mr Gantz’s Blue & White tied on around 32 seats. Neither party appeared to have a clear path to forming a majority coalition, setting the stage for what could be weeks of post-election negotiations.
The two parties both won 35 seats in the last election in April. When Mr Netanyahu was unable to form a majority government he called an unprecedented second election to try win an overall majority.
If Mr Netanyahu is unable to cobble together a coalition this time, he faces the possible risk of a mutiny within his own Likud party. Senior Likud figures have so far insisted they will not rise up against their leader.
“It will never happen. We are totally against anybody telling the Likud who to vote for,” Nir Barkat, a senior Likud MP, told The Telegraph.
But Blue & White believes Likud officials could eventually overthrow Mr Netanyahu if they believe he has become a drag on the party’s prospects of holding onto power.
The election followed a similar script to the one that preceded it in April, focusing less on policy differences and more on the central question of whether or not Mr Netanyahu should stay in office after 13 years in power.
The prime minister presented himself as an indispensable leader and the only man with the stature and experience on the world stage to guide Israel through the dangerous currents of the Middle East.
His campaign put up massive posters showing him shaking hands with Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India. “Netanyahu: a different league,” the posters read.
“I don’t like Bibi but he’s the best person for the job,” said Shula Feldman, 39-year-old British-Israeli originally from London. “For me, the issue of security overrides everything.”
Like many Likud voters, Mrs Feldman, said she believed the criminal prosecution against Mr Netanyahu was at least partly motivated by politics. “I don’t think there would be charges if he didn’t have so many enemies,” she said.
Mr Netanyahu also repeated campaign tactics that have worked for him in the past including making increasingly extreme pledges to his Right-wing voter base, inciting against Israel’s Arab minority, and issuing panicked warnings that he was going to lose.
Less than a week before the election, Mr Netanyahu pledged to annex the Jordan Valley into Israel, an unprecedented step that would destroy any lingering hopes of a Two-State solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was widely seen as an effort to energise his voter base.
Facebook suspended a chatbot belonging to Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party after it sent visitors a message warning of “Arabs who want to destroy us all – women, children and men”.
For his part, Mr Gantz offered himself as a unifying figure who would bring Israel together after years of Mr Netanyahu’s divisive rule. He charged the prime minister with seeking to cling to power only to protect himself from the criminal corruption charges swirling around him.
“The time has come when the majority takes care of everybody and not the minority takes care of one person,” Mr Gantz said, alleging that Mr Netanyahu would rely on the votes of extremists to pass an immunity law that would shield him from prosecution.
Mr Gantz, a liberal, staked out a more aggressively secular position than he did in the last election and promised to challenge the power of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties which Mr Netanyahu has relied on.
Mr Gantz said his hope was to form “a secular unity government” led by Blue & White but which also included Likud and the secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party.
However, Mr Gantz said that Likud could only join such a unity government if it first ditched Mr Netanyahu as its leader. Senior Likud figures have said so far said they will remain loyal to Mr Netanyahu.
Moshe Mordechai, a 67-year-old driving instructor, said he normally voted Likud but now intended to back Mr Gantz. “It’s time for a change. Gantz impresses me and I have had enough of Bibi,” he said.