Against the prospect of a likely indictment on corruption charges, Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term in office.
He faces a stiff challenge from retired military chief Benny Gantz, whose centrist Blue and White party is running even with Netanyahu’s Likud. Both parties could struggle to form a majority coalition with smaller allies, though, forcing them into a potential unity government.
It’s the second election this year, after Netanyahu failed to build a coalition following April’s vote and dissolved parliament.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. and exit polls are expected at the end of the voting day at 10 p.m. Official results are projected to come in overnight.
With his political career on the line, Netanyahu has campaigned furiously and taken a late hard turn to the right. He’s staged a flurry of media appearances to beseech supporters to vote in large numbers to stave off the prospect of a left-wing government he says will endanger the country’s security.
A centerpiece of his late-hour agenda has been the pledge to extend Israeli sovereignty over parts of the West Bank and to annex all the Jewish settlements there, something Netanyahu has refrained from doing during his decade-plus in power.
The proposal sparked a cascade of international condemnation, including from Europe and Saudi Arabia, an influential Arab country that has quiet, unofficial ties with Israel. The U.S., however, had a muted reaction, suggesting Netanyahu coordinated his plan with the Americans ahead of time.
He’s also been flaunting his close ties to President Donald Trump and the prospect of a defense pact between their countries shortly after the election.
Gantz is offering himself as an honest alternative to the scandal-plagued Netanyahu and his narrow coalition of ultranationalist and ultra-religious parties. Campaigning on rhetoric of unity and egalitarianism, Gantz says he represents a fresh start for Israel and has ruled out joining forces with a prime minister accused of serious crimes.
Israel’s attorney general has recommended pressing criminal charges against Netanyahu in three separate corruption cases, pending a long delayed pretrial hearing scheduled for early October — just three weeks after the election.