Haifa – Israelis are heading to the polls in a crucial election seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who ruled out a Palestinian state as part of a last-ditch appeal to right-wing voters.
Around six million Israelis are eligible to take part in the vote on Tuesday to elect 120 deputies for the Knesset, or parliament.
As of 6pm, voter turnout was at 54.6 percent, slightly less than during the 2013 elections,according to the Israeli daily Haaretz.
Netanyahu recently sparked criticism when he posted a video on his Facebook in which he warns about the high voter turnout among Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Joint Arab List candidate Ahmed Tibi responded harshly to Netanyahu’s comments. “Netanyahu is panicking, inciting against Arab voters who are fulfilling their natural and democratic right like any other citizen,” he said.
The Joint Arab List – a coalition of four Arab-majority parties in Israel – is expected to make a strong showing and is projected to pick up 13 seats, according to the polls.
“The right-wing government is in danger,” he said, urging voters to cast their ballot for Likud. “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organisations are busing them out.”
Netanyahu’s ruling out of a Palestinian state also appears to have failed to boost his electoral prospects.
According to the opinion poll by Israeli daily Haaretz , the Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog is ahead of Likud by four seats. Herzog has also cast his ballot in Jerusalem.
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In a last second attempt to garner more votes, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman urged voters to cast their ballots for his party, Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home).
“Whoever wants to prevent an ISIL branch and an Al-Qaeda cell in Israel must vote for Yisrael Beiteinu,” he said.
Paul Gross, a 36-year-old resident of Jerusalem, cast his ballot for the Zionist Union. “A Jewish state must be a just state,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Netanyahu and [the Jewish Home Party’s Naftali] Bennett are leading us to international isolation and we need an exit route fast. These elections provide one.”
National elections are held every four years, unless Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, votes to dissolve the government and hold new elections. In early December, Netanyahu fired Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Finance Minister Yair Lapid and announced elections for the 20th Knesset.
Although Herzog and Livni campaigned on the promise to rotate in the role of prime minister, Livni announced late Monday that she was forgoing that agreement and that only Herzog will serve as the premier if the Zionist Union wins.
Time for change
Former Israeli President Shimon Peres publicly endorsed the Zionist Union’s Herzog.
Zionist Union candidate Manuel Trajtenberg said that Israel “is at a crucial junction right now. We have hit a dead end in terms of socio-economic issues, as well as our international diplomatic relations. Change has to come”.
“With all these defects, Israel is a very vibrant democracy and people have a good sense of knowing when it’s time to change,” Trajtenberg told Al Jazeera. “I trust in the people and the democratic tradition.”
Analysts explain that Likud’s performance may be harmed by the emergence of new right-wing parties, such as the Kulanu party, which draws from Likud’s traditional support base.
“The question now is whether it will weaken Likud enough to further fragment the party’s dominant position on the right,” Dahlia Scheindlin, an independent pollster, told Al Jazeera.
“If it further fragments it, it could mean that Likud may not be able to [catch up to] the Zionist Union,” she said.
Ostensibly attempting to mitigate the potentially harmful effects, Netanyahu offered to appoint Moshe Kahlon, Kulana’s leader, the role of finance minister.
Kahlon refused to endorse Netanyahu as prime minister, however, and rebuffed his offer.
Asked about expectations for voting day, Netanyahu’s office and the Likud party spokesperson both declined to comment.
In the 2013 elections, which brought Netanyahu to power, voter turnout reached 67.7 percent. Participation is expected to hit similar levels this year.
Hundreds of voters in Haifa’s Abbas neighbourhood, home to many Palestinian citizens of Israel, were voting at a local elementary school early on Tuesday.
A vocal group of Palestinian activists calling for a boycott of the Knesset have also gained support this election season, partially due to Israel’s brutal 51-day war with the Gaza Strip last summer and the slew of discriminatory laws that have targeted the Arab minority in recent years.
Nonetheless, the Joint Arab List enjoys broad support among the Arab public and is expected to gain 13 seats in the next government, according to recent polls.
Yousef Jabareen, a senior lecturer at Haifa University and number 10 on the Arab Joint List, says that his party expects more seats than polling suggests.
“We aim to represent our voters and the issues facing our community,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that their first goal was to “block any right-wing government” and consolidate considerable influence in the opposition.
“We will not be part of the coalition that continues the occupation in the West Bank and Gaza and continues to discriminate against our community [in Israel],” Jabareen said.