Months of aggressive campaigning, political spins and endless polls come to an end on Tuesday, as Israelis elect their representatives for the 19th Knesset.
10,132 polling stations throughout Israel will open at 7:00 a.m. and most will close at 10:00 p.m., at which point Israel’s three main television channels - Channels 1, 2 and 10 - will publish their exit polls and predict, hopefully accurately, how many seats each party will receive.
5,656,705 Israelis are eligible to cast their vote in Tuesday’s election. Results will begin to trickle in Tuesday night and it is hoped that final results will be available sometime Wednesday.
Each voter - including the candidates themselves - can vote only by presenting valid identification: either an identity card, a valid Israeli passport or a valid driver's license.
Israel Police will deploy more than 20,000 officers to make sure there are no problems at the polling sites. Election Day in Israel is by law a national day off for workers. Employees who are not working receive full pay, and many workers who are in industries where companies have permits to operate on national days off receive as much as 200% of their normal salaries.
The campaign officially launched on October 9, when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced his intention to disband the Knesset and hold new elections. The announcement was made after talks between the Likud and its coalition partners failed to yield an agreed upon budget for 2013.
The entire election campaign was conducted under the common belief among Israelis that Netanyahu would be re-elected as Prime Minister without any major competitors, leaving only the question of how many seats the ruling party would win and how stable it would be without having to rely on smaller parties to keep a coalition in place.
It was his desire to have a large ruling party with a solid number of seats that led Netanyahu to announce on October 25 that his party would run in a joint list with the Yisrael Beytenu party led by Avigdor Lieberman, then Foreign Minister who was later forced to resign over an impending indictment on charges of breach of trust.
American advisor Arthur Finkelstein, who advised Netanyahu and Lieberman and encouraged them to go ahead with the union, predicted that the joint list could win as many as 45 seats, but the joint party’s numbers in the polls continued to decline, until one poll last week predicted an all-time low of 32 seats.
If the polls do come true and the Likud Beytenu does not win as many seats as it is hoping for, it will remain to be seen what kind of coalition Netanyahu will form. The members of his Likud party will likely pressure him to go with his “natural partners” - Shas headed by Aryeh Deri, Eli Yishai and Ariel Atias and the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) led by newcomer Naftali Bennett, who won the race for the party’s leadership against longtime MK Zevulun Orlev, who left politics.
Bennett has received unprecedented popularity and has climbed in the polls, with many polls predicting his party will be the third largest and perhaps even the second largest party. At the same time, a slew of nasty Likud campaigns directly targeting Bennett and his party, coupled with Netanyahu’s high dislike of Bennett who served as his chief of staff from 2006 to 2008, may keep Bennett out of Netanyahu’s coalition.
Shas has also been targeted by the Likud, with Netanyahu threatening to take the Housing and Interior Ministries from the party and not giving them to ‘sectorial parties’ once again. Shas fought back, targeting Lieberman’s party and accusing it of taking over the Likud and turning it into a party that represents "the whites and the Russians."
If Netanyahu chooses to leave either party out of his coalition, he will likely have a hard time relying just on parties from the center-left of the political spectrum. These include the Labor party, whose leader Shelly Yechimovich has announced she would not join a Netanyahu-led coalition, newcomer Yair Lapid, who left journalism last January to form the Yesh Atid party, and Tzipi Livni, the former Kadima leader who returned to politics to form a new party, Hatnua, splitting Kadima in the process.
Another possible coalition partner is Kadima under Shaul Mofaz, assuming it gets into the Knesset. Most polls predicted the party, founded by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who split the Likud so he could carry out the expulsion from Gush Katif, will not pass the electoral threshold but the last polls published said the party would get two or three seats - a significant downfall from the 28 it had in the outgoing Knesset.
The Labor party, after suffering a downfall in the 2009 elections when led by outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak, has bounced back under Yechimovich and most likely will be the second or third largest party. Yechimovich took over the party leadership after Barak split the party in a surprise move in 2011, so he could remain in Netanyahu's coalition without opposition from within his own party. Barak has announced his resignation from politics and the remaining members of his Independence party decided not to run this time, realizing they would not win enough votes to enter the Knesset.
If the numbers she received in the polls are accurate and, assuming she keeps her promise not to join a Likud-led government, Yechimovich will most likely head the opposition.
Netanyahu will likely not have a choice other than to turn to the Jewish Home, Shas, or both, and perhaps add Lapid and Livni to the coalition as a “balancing power”. It is also expected that the world, particularly the United States, will pressure Netanyahu to resume negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and he will likely want to show the world that his coalition is not “an extreme rightist” one, thus requiring him to invite a party from the left.
Rumors this week have indicated Netanyahu may even ask Barak to continue as Defense Minister for several months, another move that would indicate to the world that his government is "moderate".
Meanwhile, as the Likud Beytenu continued to present a united front throughout the campaign, similar attempts to unite the left failed miserably. Livni rejected offers to join either Yechimovich or Lapid because she refused to be their number two, choosing instead to form her own party and deepen the rift in the left.
Realizing that her numbers were dwindling, Livni attempted several weeks ago to call Yechimovich and Lapid to work with her, but that attempt failed as well when the three could still not agree on anything.
The elections may be coming to an end, but the next few weeks will be equally as interesting, as the numbers of seats become known and the coalition negotiations begin. Will Netanyahu form a nationalist coalition? Will he look to the left to appease the world? Will the many clashing demands of the parties allow him to form a stable coalition? Time will tell.
Israel votes, you watch. Live from Jerusalem, watch the Arutz Sheva election special sponsored by the Orthodox Union OU Israel Center today, Tuesday January 22nd from 9:00PM - 2:00AM Israel time / 2:00PM - 7:00PM Eastern Standard Time. Your phone calls will be taken. For more info click here.