Israel Election Live Updates: Exit Polls Show Tight Race

Israel Election Live Updates: Exit Polls Show Tight Race

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his centrist challenger, the former army chief Benny Gantz, appeared to be neck and neck as Israel’s second election in five months drew to a close Tuesday night, according to initial surveys of voters leaving the polls.

It was too early to tell if Mr. Gantz’s Blue and White party or Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party would emerge with enough seats in Parliament to form a governing coalition.

In two exit polls, Mr. Gantz held a slight edge. In a third, the two men tied. The three surveys also did not agree on which of the two was ahead in being able to form a coalition. None of the surveys gave either man a governing majority.

The last voters were still lining up to cast their ballots at 10 p.m. when the exit polls were reported.

Adding to the uncertainty, Israeli exit polls have been inaccurate and unreliable in the past, and were likely to change in the coming hours.

Actual results were expected to trickle in overnight. And the winner of the contest for prime minister could end up being decided not by the final vote count but in weeks of coalition talks.

Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, narrowly won the vote in April but was unable to form a government with his usual right-wing and religious coalition partners. He dissolved Parliament, triggering Tuesday’s do-over election, rather than let Mr. Gantz or another rival be given the chance to form a coalition.

Snap a selfie at the ballot box, earn a discount at the gym or a cocktail bar. That student-inspired initiative was just one of many efforts being made to get Israelis to vote.

They seemed to be having some effect.

As of 8 p.m., officials said 63.7 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots, up from 61.3 percent at the same time during the April election, and 62.4 percent at the same time in 2015.

Concerned about election fatigue so soon after the last campaign, the parties appearing on Tuesday’s ballot, election officials and even a group of Israeli celebrity chefs made videos, took to the airwaves and sent recorded messages to voters’ cellphones with increasingly frantic pleas for them to go to polling stations.

Election Day is a day off in Israel and Tuesday was ideal beach weather. So some party leaders hit the sand.

Experts said which blocs of voters had the strongest turnout would most likely determine the outcome.

In April, by the close of voting, 68.5 percent of eligible voters had cast ballots, down from more than 72 percent in 2015. Turnout in Arab districts was 49 percent, one of the lowest on record.

Analysts say a lower turnout generally favors fringe and ultra-Orthodox parties, whose supporters are more ideologically committed or driven by narrow interests.

A higher turnout among Arab voters could increase the opposition’s chances of blocking the formation of another right-wing, religious coalition led by Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Netanyahu was leaving nothing to chance in seeking victory, and seemingly no rule unbroken.

His Facebook account’s chatbot was suspended for several hours midday on Tuesday at the request of Israeli officials, after it violated regulations barring the publishing of voter surveys on Election Day. The bot was reinstated after a Likud leader, the lawmaker David Bitan, promised it would not repeat the offense.

It was the second time in a week that Facebook shut down Mr. Netanyahu’s messenger bot: On Thursday it was disabled for 24 hours for violating hate speech rules after it sent a message saying that Israel’s Arab politicians “want to destroy us all.”

Mr. Netanyahu also broke an election law prohibiting candidates from promoting themselves from 7 p.m. on Election Eve through the end of voting tonight, Israeli media reported. He gave at least two radio interviews, according to Ynet, one of them after being warned not to by the Central Elections Committee.

Likud operatives also persuaded an Israeli television station to report that the party was installing surveillance cameras at “dozens” of polling places in Arab areas, The Times of Israel reported, an apparent effort to suppress Arab turnout.

The station at first reported that the cameras were capable of facial recognition, but other news outlets cast doubt on that and noted that the station only showed two men setting up one camera in a village near Nazareth.

It appeared that coverage of the stunt was the primary goal, in the hopes of discouraging Arab citizens from turning up to vote, The Times of Israel concluded.

Mr. Gantz’s Blue and White party said that its website had been the victim of a “significant cyberattack.” It said a so-called distributed-denial-of-service attack mounted from “various servers abroad” had made more than 500 attempted breaches.

That type of cyberattack involves disrupting or blocking traffic to a website by overwhelming it with traffic. The attack shut down the party’s website, leaving it with a blank screen for a time.

At this time, the perpetrator is unknown.

Israelis are voting on Tuesday for the second time in five months in parliamentary elections that may end the storied career of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or deliver him a new lease on power.

Mr. Netanyahu won a plurality in April but was unable to muster a governing coalition, forcing an unprecedented do-over vote on Tuesday.

Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu, 69, has promised to keep Israel safe by battling Iran’s proxies across the region and promoting his close relationship with President Trump. The American president has showered him with political favors, including moving the United States Embassy to Jerusalem.

Mr. Netanyahu has had to fend off corruption charges. With an indictment expected within weeks, he has extracted promises from his right-wing and ultrareligious allies to support legislation granting him immunity from prosecution if he is able to form a new government.

His opponents — led by Benny Gantz, 60, a centrist former army chief from the Blue and White party — have urged Israelis to send Mr. Netanyahu into retirement and promised to heal social divisions that they say he has exploited for political gain.

A major issue in this contest is whether Israelis want their country to become more or less religious.

Avigdor Liberman, a Netanyahu ally-turned-nemesis, has attacked the prime minister’s reliance on ultrareligious parties and styled himself a champion of Israel’s many nonreligious Jews. Mr. Liberman has positioned himself to be a kingmaker in coalition talks, offering to support whichever candidate agrees to cut the ultrareligious parties out of power.

If Mr. Netanyahu’s campaign boiled down to two compelling arguments — his own indispensability to Israel, and the danger that his defeat would bring to power a “weak, left-wing” government with the participation of Arab politicians — his approach grew increasingly frenzied as Election Day drew near.

Spreading fear about Arab citizens, he mounted a campaign against voter fraud and tried unsuccessfully to enact a law allowing Likud members to take video at polling places. Opponents called it a transparent attempt at intimidation and vote suppression.

Faced with damaging reports about his corruption cases, he tried to stage a boycott of Channel 12, Israel’s most popular broadcaster, though he relented and gave the station an interview on Saturday.

And in an attempt to siphon off right-wing votes, he staged a live television announcement of what amounted to no more than a campaign promise, saying he would push to annex the Jordan Valley, a swath of Palestinian territory that makes up a good portion of the West Bank. But even some supporters rolled their eyes, pointing to other breathless campaign promises that were never fulfilled.

On Monday, Mr. Netanyahu released a barrage of new ads and personal video appeals, delivering messages that seemed to bracket the sacred and the profane for each audience. An ad aimed at young secular Tel Aviv residents noted that Election Day was a day off from work, and warned that if they lolled around in bed and didn’t vote, the left would use that time to seize power.

Hours later, Mr. Netanyahu was on Facebook Live from the Western Wall — for Jews, one of the holiest places on Earth — wearing a kipa and declaring himself “overcome with emotion” as he touched its stones and sought to “continue and work for a glorious country.”

Mr. Netanyahu is known for his “gevalt” tactics in the final days of a campaign, in which he warns his supporters that all will be lost if they don’t race to the polls. But even as his rivals dismissed his dire warnings as both false and desperate, they were sounding their own alarms.

Yamina, a right-wing party, objected to Mr. Netanyahu’s effort to “drink up” the votes of its supporters, but also acknowledged that it was working and pleaded with conservative Israelis to vote Yamina to hold Mr. Netanyahu to his promises of annexing West Bank land and building new settlements. Labor warned that it was in danger of vanishing from Parliament if its supporters failed to go to the polls.

For the left-wing Democratic Union, the election was the “last chance to save Israeli democracy.” And for the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism, Mr. Gantz and his running mate, Yair Lapid, were “the destroyers and annihilators of religion who want to bring about a holocaust,” according to one aged rabbi who spoke at a mass rally on Sunday. (Mr. Lapid said that his grandfather was murdered in Hitler’s gas chambers, and demanded that Mr. Netanyahu condemn the remark.)

Mr. Gantz, for his part, framed the election as a choice between “an extreme government” in which the racist fringe party Otzma Yehudit is granted a cabinet seat, or a “secular, broad-based unity government.” He also promised to heal the divides in Israeli society, saying, “Eighty percent of the country’s citizens agree on 80 percent of the issues.”

The path into a girls’ religious school near the beach in Tel Aviv was a gauntlet of activists from half a dozen parties offering stickers and fliers along with last-minute campaign pleas.

Election Day in Israel is decidedly low-tech. Voters step behind a tall cardboard screen, choose a paper slip with the name of a political party, seal it inside an envelope and then slide it into a ballot box.

There is no absentee voting. Benchail Yefet, 75, flew in from London early Tuesday, cutting short a trip. “I came here to save Labor from falling below the electoral threshold,” he said.

His brother Yossi Yefet, 56, was still wavering, but settled on the right-wing Yamina party.

“It will be a miracle if we see a change today,” said their sister, Agada Yefet, 69, also a Labor voter.

The siblings, who planned to watch the results together Tuesday night, expressed concern that nothing would be resolved. “I think we’ll have a third election,” Ms. Yefet said.

Outside the school, activists from the Democratic Union cheered, waving rainbow and Israeli flags and banging on drums as they ushered in a party leader, Stav Shaffir, 34, who is a rock star among young left-wingers.

After Ms. Shaffir had voted and left with her entourage, Ana Lobuznova, 21, rolled up on a bike. Fresh out of the army, this was her first time voting.

“I moved to Israel from Russia seven years ago, and there you don’t vote because, you know, Putin,” she said. “Your vote doesn’t actually matter.”

“I thought it was the same here, but now I understand: I can make a difference,” she added. Ms. Lobuznova said she had backed the centrist Blue and White party, “because they have the best chance of getting rid of Bibi.” — Yardena Schwartz

In Nazareth, the unofficial capital of Israel’s Arab minority, voters said they were backing the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties because that was the only slate that represented their interests.

Many said they hoped greater Arab representation in Parliament would lead to more effective policies for Arab citizens, who make up a fifth of Israel’s population.

The wish list includes a crackdown on crime, violence and illegal weapons in Arab towns, an end to house demolitions and the cancellation of the Nation-State Law that the Parliament passed last year. The law enshrined the right of national self-determination as “unique to the Jewish people” — not all Israel’s citizens — and effectively downgraded the status of the Arabic language. It was denounced by liberal Israelis as anti-democratic and racist.

But most of all, Arab voters appeared to be hoping their ballot would help oust Mr. Netanyahu.

Nassim Mussalam, 60, a projects engineer, said he wanted “to stop seeing or hearing Netanyahu,” as well as the prime minister’s family, and to bring an end to his government’s “racist laws.”

In April’s election, Arab turnout was 49 percent, one of the lowest on record. The parties making up the Joint List ran separately and won a total of 10 seats in the short-lived Parliament. Having reunited into the Joint List, its leader, Ayman Odeh, hoped for a much larger turnout that could help topple Mr. Netanyahu.

Arriving to vote with his family in the Kababir neighborhood of Haifa on Tuesday morning, Mr. Odeh said being “first-class voters” would help the Arabs become “first-class citizens.” — Mohammed Najib

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