Israelis began voting Tuesday in the parliamentary elections that is widely expected to give a third term for the incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Voting started at 7 a.m. local time (05:00 GMT) and is set to close at 10 p.m. at 10,132 polling stations across the country.
Opinion polls predict an easy win for the right-wing coalition led by Netanyahu's Likud party, but with fewer seats than what they garnered in the previous election. Likud Party and the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu group with which it has an electoral pact are expected to win 32 seats – making it the largest bloc.
This would compel the Likud coalition to forge a post-electoral alliance with several other parties that share a similar ideology to take control of the 120-seat Knesset, the single-chamber parliament. A total of 32 parties are in the election fray.
Surveys also suggest that self-made millionaire, Naftali Bennett who heads the far-right Jewish Home party (Habayit Hayeudi) would get 14 seats, Reuters has reported.
Bennett, who emerged as the star attraction of the election campaign has struck a chord with voters with his youthful zing and far-right views on the Palestine issue. Reportedly, he has also made inroads into the right-wing voter base. His surprise upswing in the election campaigns has even threatened Netanyahu’s support base, as the incumbent Prime Minister has traditionally looked towards the religious and right-wing voters for winning elections.
Local media reports aver that Netanyahu may be open to forging an alliance with Bennet’s party if the coalition falls short of majority.
Apparently, Bennet shares the views of Netanyahu on the Palestine settlement issue and has vigorously campaigned for annexing the West Bank settlement areas.
"I pray to God to give me the power to unite all of Israel and to restore Israel's Jewish soul," Bennett said Monday at a final campaign appearance before Jerusalem's Western Wall – the most important prayer site in Judaism.
Netanyahu has vouched to continue constructions in the West Bank and to take up Iran’s nuclear weapon issue if he is reinstated in the office. His policy of encouraging settlements in the disputed area of West Bank is expected to put him at loggerheads with the United States and other international allies, who support an Israel-Palestine peace deal.
Opinion polls forecast 17 seats for the Labor Party, the main opposition party.
The parliamentary elections were originally scheduled for October, but were advanced as parties in the Knesset failed to arrive at a consensus on a new budget.
Netanyahu cast his vote in a polling station in Jerusalem's Rehavia neighborhood as he was accompanied by his wife Sara and two sons.
"This is the first family vote. Whoever wants Israel to succeed should vote for one big party," Netanyahu said after voting, adding, "It's not a rainy day, but we hope it will rain Likud ballots."
The Central Election Committee estimates that 5.66 million Israeli citizens are eligible to vote. Analysts expect about 65.2 percent of Israelis to exercise their franchise. By 11 a.m. local time, more than 11.4 percent of votes were cast, local media has pointed out.