Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wasted no time Tuesday morning and headed to his polling station shortly after it opened at 7am this morning. Netanyahu, along with his wife Sara and their two adult sons Yair and Avner, arrived at the Ben Gurion School in Jerusalem to vote.
Thirty-four parties are vying for 120 seats in the Israeli Knesset. Among them, Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party.
He told journalists there: “We want Israel to succeed, we vote Likud-Israel-Beitenu…The bigger it is, the more Israel will succeed.”
“This is the first time the whole family votes together. I keep saying that the Likud-Israel Beiteinu represents the whole people and in this case the whole family. Anyone who wants Israel to succeed should vote for one large party.”
“We call on all young people to vote Likud-Beiteinu, even if it’s not the fashionable choice,” his son Yair Netanyahu said.
After they cast their ballots, he and his sons visited the Western Wall – the holiest site in Judaism – where the prime minsiter placed a note.
Israeli media reported that his note read: “With God’s help, for the future of Israel.”
While there, Netanyahu told reporters: “I come to the Western Wall each time to touch the rock [foundation] of our existence, and I say a prayer for the future of the State of Israel and the future of our people.”
Though Likud-Israel Beiteinu is expected to receive the most Knesset seats, Netanyahu will still need to form a coalition government with smaller parties, and it could take days or even weeks for Netanyahu to cobble together that coalition. Netanyahu could join forces with the Jewish Home party, headed by Naftali Bennett – a religious party that opposes any territorial compromise with the Palestinians, or he could choose to tack left and invite more centrist parties like Yesh Atid, Kadima or Hatnua into his coalition. The latter choice would likely be met with approval by the Obama administration, which has been outspoken in its criticism of Netanyahu’s decisions to build more Jewish housing in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
More than five and a half million Israelis are eligible to vote, and there are more than 10,000 ballot boxes positioned at schools nationwide. Election Day is a national holiday in Israel, and many families took advantage of the good weather to visit national parks. Stores were offering sales and cafes and restaurants were full with those who had the day off.
Google also joined in the festive atmosphere, constructing this “Google Doodle” on its Israel homepage:
Labor Party’s Shelly Yachimovich, a fierce rival of Netanyahu, voted in Tel Aviv and said, “It’s not a dream, it can be done, a few more seats and Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] won’t be the prime minister.”
She added, “Don’t be lazy, step out of your homes, and we can do this.”
Jewish Home party Chairman Naftali Bennett said, “when I see everyone – secular, religious, Arabs, Druze – joining the Jewish Home, I know that this is the beginning of something new for the nation of Israel.”
Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni said that “anyone who understands that Netanyahu’s policies must change, should give me the power to change the path and take the reins. All the spins and tricks are over and there will be dramatic decisions.”
Yair Lapid who heads Yesh Atid said, “This is the first time I’m voting for myself. It’s a very special feeling. I hope everyone goes out to vote and take part in this political celebration.” Before entering politics several months ago, Lapid was a prominent journalist on Israel’s Channel 2 and for the Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz said, “I feel great, it will be wonderful. Whoever wants to choose security and experience should vote Kadima.”
President Shimon Peres – who is not running – said: “Today the state is asking citizens to vote for a free, beautiful, democratic country.” The Israeli presidency is largely a ceremonial position, while the prime minister heads the government.
In an editorial Tuesday, the Washington Post noted the “notoriously bad relations” between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama over the past four years and that Netanyahu “calculates that being seen to stand up to this U.S. president is good politics in Israel — and he may be right.”
The paper urged the leaders to move toward each other and try to “reset” their relationship, writing:
The question is whether the incumbent will choose, or perhaps be obliged by the electoral math, to include parties from the center and left in his coalition. If he does not, Mr. Netanyahu could find himself isolated both within his own government and internationally: He is one of only two of the top 30 candidates from his own Likud Party to endorse Palestinian statehood.
For that reason, the wise U.S. policy would be to concede, and maybe even welcome, Mr. Netanyahu’s reelection while quietly urging him to construct a centrist government. In the coming months Israel and the United States will likely have an urgent need to communicate clearly and cooperate closely on the threat of Iran’s nuclear program; and they must try to preserve the prospect of Palestinian statehood. Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu may be political foils, but as each begins a new term their deeper interest lies in a reset of their relationship.
Israeli television stations will announce their exit polls at 10pm local, or 3pm U.S. Eastern time. After that, the head of the largest party will begin negotiations to form a coalition with smaller parties, a process allocated 28 days.