Over 6 million Israelis eligible to vote as polls open

Gantz, Netanyahu emphasize largest party over bigger bloc in final campaign messages

People sort ballot boxes as part of preparations for the upcoming Israeli election, during a briefing for members of the media at the Israel Central Election Committee Logistics Center in Shoham, Israel March 6, 2019 (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
People sort ballot boxes as part of preparations for the upcoming Israeli election, during a briefing for members of the media at the Israel Central Election Committee Logistics Center in Shoham, Israel March 6, 2019
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
As the polls opened across the country at 7 a.m. Tuesday morning, 6,339,279 citizens were eligible to vote – a little less than half a million more than in 2015.
Voting is taking place at 10,720 polling stations across Israel, plus another 96 at Israeli embassies and consulates abroad – where voting already began last week – and even more on IDF bases.
Voters are able to choose between 40 parties – a record high – though polling has consistently shown that only 13 have a realistic chance of passing the 3.25% electoral threshold. In the last election, it took over 136,000 for a party to get into the Knesset; this time, significantly more votes will likely be necessary.
Blue and White leader Benny Gantz promised victory over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tuesday’s elections, in a motivational speech to his supporters on Monday at his party’s headquarters in Tel Aviv.
“We will replace the government because there is an urgent historic need,” Gantz said. “Netanyahu is running a desperate campaign in order to overcome his legal problems and we won’t let him.”
Challenging Labor leader Avi Gabbay, Gantz said that “people realize that they have to make us the largest party, and even Avi Gabbay knows he should not stop... a political upheaval.”
Gantz declared Blue and White “half a meter away from victory” but said the party still needed two more mandates from tens of thousands of voters.
Sources close to Gantz said that Netanyahu’s efforts to take votes away from parties on the Right were not working.
“The prime minister is crying wolf and the public doesn’t buy it,” Blue and White candidate Chili Tropper said. “We feel the drift of voters coming our way, because they know that is the only way to unseat Netanyahu.
Gantz was greeted by his supporters with drums and chants of “here he comes, the next prime minister.”
Like Gantz, Netanyahu emphasized making sure that his party would be the largest. Voting for smaller right-wing parties would topple the Likud, he argued.
Netanyahu visited the Mahaneh Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, climbing up onto a bar to speak to the crowd gathered beyond a phalanx of guards and police officers.
“It’s very late. We have a gap of several seats,” Netanyahu warned. “The only way to close the gap and ensure that the Likud will definitely form the next government is for there to be a big Likud, to bring out all the people.
“Some of our people are complacent. They believe the media, which is trying to put them to sleep. They’re saying everything is OK, it’s in our pockets – it’s not in our pockets. At the moment, if not every Likudnik and his family, friends and acquaintances goes out [to the polls], we will wake up with [Blue and White co-leader] Yair Lapid as prime minister,” Netanyahu said.
In a live broadcast on his Facebook page later on Monday, Netanyahu – hinting at Gantz – compared former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s rhetoric to that of radical Rabbi Meir Kahane, but said Rabin reversed course after being elected.
“We can’t repeat the mistake of 1992,” Netanyahu said. “Then, they brought a general, with positive attributes – Yitzhak Rabin – who talked more right-wing than Kahane – [Otzma Yehudit candidate Itamar] Ben-Gvir, yes? – and formed a left-wing government that [signed the Oslo Accords]. And you know exactly what that did.”
“That brought the worst murders here, brought them into Judea and Samaria – and we got a disaster,” he added.
Kahane was a member of Knesset in the 1980s, and was banned from running for reelection on grounds of racist incitement. Ben-Gvir is a candidate in Otzma Yehudit, a party founded by Kahane disciples. He first came to renown a few weeks before Rabin was assassinated in 1995, after he stole a Cadillac emblem from the prime minister’s car and said: “We got to his car and we’ll get to him, too.”
Netanyahu struck a deal with Bayit Yehudi to run in a bloc with Otzma – known as the Union of Right-Wing Parties – so that the party wouldn’t fall below the electoral threshold and their votes for the right would be counted towards the next Knesset.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu pinned his electoral woes on Zehut, led by former Likud MK Moshe Feiglin, who refuses to commit to which prime ministerial candidate he will support when he meets with President Reuven Rivlin.
Feiglin has said that his party’s support will be conditional on it receiving the finance and education portfolios and the legalization of cannabis. Netanyahu’s associates reached out to Zehut to negotiate, but were rebuffed and told to wait until after the election, KAN reported.
The Finance Ministry will likely be a major point of contention in future coalition negotiations, since current Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said he will not join a coalition in which Feiglin holds the portfolio.