Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cast his vote Tuesday morning, arriving in the Paula Ben Gurion school in Jerusalem with his family as voting in the general election began across the country.
Before he voted, Netanyahu posted a notice on his Facebook page pledging to first invite Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett into his coalition.
Netanyahu reiterated that he has no plans to form a unity government with the Zionist Union.
Nearly six million voters will be eligible to cast ballots in more than 10,000 polling stations across the country Tuesday in an election that is expected to attract the highest voter turnout since 1999.
Until that race, voter turnouts regularly approached 80 percent.
Since then, they have not hit 70%. But the closeness of the race – combined with boosted resources aimed at getting out the vote – are expected to significantly increase turnout.
Exit polls will be broadcast at 10 p.m. Tuesday on the three television networks, but official results will not be presented to President Reuven Rivlin until March 25. Formal consultations on forming a new government will begin next week, but Rivlin will receive calls before then in an effort to build a stable coalition as soon as possible.
Casting a ballot for the Knesset for the 18th time on Tuesday, Rivlin called on all Israelis to vote and “decide the state’s future each according to one’s world view.”
Entering the gymnasium of Jerusalem’s Yefe Nof Elementary School a few blocks from where he and his wife Nechama have lived for decades, the president said voting was really “mandatory” and that the citizenry should “take your fate in your hands.” Arriving at 8 a.m., they were among the first residents of the neighborhood to vote.
Internal polls taken Sunday by the Zionist Union, the Likud and Bayit Yehudi all found that the race had tightened over the last few days, because the Likud had taken seats away from Bayit Yehudi voters and undecided voters on the Right.
The Likud’s internal poll, taken by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s American strategist John McLaughlin, found that for the first time, a majority of Israelis do not believe that Netanyahu will form the next government.
Only 49.6% said they thought Netanyahu would form the government, down from 62.3% on March 9. The percentage in Sunday’s poll who thought Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog would form the government was 30.4%, and the rest chose other party leaders or did not know.
The Zionist Union said officially Thursday night that if victorious, it would seek a rotation in the Prime Minister’s Office between party leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni and that “the rotation is not canceled.”
But party officials reiterated what they have been saying for weeks: The rotation was dependent on its feasibility in coalition negotiations.
“Livni courageously and generously said that if the rotation would in any way hinder the formation of a government, she would not stand in the way,” Herzog told Channel 2 Monday.
“She told me she would give me the full flexibility I need to form the next government.”
Livni wrote on Facebook Monday that her partnership with Herzog was “strong, and nothing has changed.” She said that she had made clear all along that she would not allow the rotation to be an obstacle to replacing Netanyahu.
Netanyahu said he believed Livni was giving up on the rotation because the Likud was gaining on the Zionist Union in the polls. He said the move meant Herzog and Livni lied about the rotation.
“Buji and Tzipi are panicking because of the tightening gap between Likud and Labor,” Netanyahu told Channel 2 Monday, referring to Herzog and Livni. “They can’t stand up to pressure. They couldn’t handle the pressure of the polls so how can they handle international pressure? This can decide the election. The public is not stupid.”
Herzog and Livni responded that it was Netanyahu who is panicking and that the way he reacted to the news had proved it.
Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said the news was proof that Netanyahu and Herzog were building a national unity government with the ultra-Orthodox parties. He said that was the only logical reason that Livni, who the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties would veto, would give up the premiership.
The Zionist Union and Yesh Atid continued to fight over voters Monday. Herzog told activists at his Tel Aviv headquarters that because the Likud was taking votes away from Bayit Yehudi, the Zionist Union had to take votes away from Yesh Atid.
Lapid responded that it was “undemocratic to tell people not to vote for what they believe in and to vote instead for someone’s calculations of mandates.”
The Zionist Union received an endorsement Monday from former prime minister Ehud Barak. The Likud was endorsed by former Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria chairman Dani Dayan, who ran unsuccessfully for a realistic slot on the Bayit Yehudi list.
Netanyahu toured the Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa that he built in 1997 despite international pressure and vowed to build more in the capital. He warned that if Herzog won the race, the Arab neighborhoods near Har Homa would become “Hamastan.”
The prime minister’s associates said he said nothing new in the interviews he has granted in recent days about his support for a Palestinian state. He has not canceled his support for a Palestinian state, but he believes that under the current circumstances, Israel cannot withdraw from any land.