JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israelis were voting Monday in the country's unprecedented third election in less than a year to decide whether longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stays in power despite his upcoming criminal trial on corruption charges.
Netanyahu, the longest serving leader in Israeli history, has been the caretaker prime minister for more than a year as a divided Israel has weathered two inconclusive elections and a prolonged political paralysis. With opinion polls forecasting another deadlock, Netanyahu is seeking a late surge in support to score a parliamentary majority along with other nationalist parties that will deliver him a fourth consecutive term in office, and fifth overall.
He faces a stiff challenge once again from retired military chief Benny Gantz, whose centrist Blue and White party is running even with Netanyahu's Likud on a campaign message that Israel's longtime prime minister is unfit to lead because of the serious charges against him.
Both parties appear unable to form a coalition with their traditional allies. With the prospect of a unity government between them seemingly off the table after a particularly nasty campaign, Monday's vote may well turn into merely a preamble to another election.
"I hope that today marks the start of a healing process, where we can begin living together again," Gantz said upon voting in his hometown of Rosh Ha'ayin in central Israel, warning voters not to "get drawn in by the lies or by the violence" after the acrimonious election campaign.
There was little fanfare in the days leading up to the vote, with a noticeable absence of campaign posters on the streets and public rallies that typically characterize the run-up to Israeli elections. With voter fatigue clearly a factor, turnout could prove to be decisive. Election day is a national holiday in Israel and the country usually boasts one of the highest voter turnouts among Western democracies. But the second repeat vote and fears of the new coronavirus, which has so far has been kept largely in check, look to hinder turnout.
Israel set up some 15 stations to allow voting by hundreds of Israelis who have been ordered to remain in home-quarantine after possible exposure to the virus.
"The corona thing is completely under control. Today we've taken all the precautions that are necessary, people can go and vote, with complete confidence," Netanyahu said, after placing his vote in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has tried to portray himself as a statesman who is uniquely qualified to lead the country through challenging times. Gantz has tried to paint Netanyahu as divisive and scandal-plagued, offering himself as a calming influence and an honest alternative.
Gantz says he favors a national unity government with Likud, but only if it rids itself of its longtime leader because of the corruption charges against him. Netanyahu, who still enjoys widespread support in his party, insists he must remain prime minister in any unity deal.
With his career on the line, Netanyahu has campaigned furiously. He's taken a hard turn to the right in hopes of rallying his nationalist base, promising to expand and annex West Bank settlements. In a campaign that has been marked by ugly smears, Netanyahu's surrogates have spread unfounded allegations claiming Gantz is corrupt, unstable and susceptible to blackmail by Iran.
The most recent attempt appears to have backfired. Recordings have revealed Netanyahu lied on live television about not being involved in a plot to secretly record a Gantz consultant disparaging his boss. Channel 12 aired audio Sunday night of Netanyahu speaking to the rabbi who clandestinely recorded the Gantz adviser and discussing when it would be leaked to the media.
Netanyahu is desperate to score a narrow 61-seat majority in parliament with his hard-line religious and nationalist allies before heading to trial two weeks later. Netanyahu has failed to secure himself immunity from prosecution, but with a strong hold on power he could seek other avenues to derail the legal proceedings against him.
Netanyahu goes on trial March 17 for charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust stemming from accusations he accepted lavish gifts from billionaire friends and promised to promote advantageous legislation for a major newspaper in exchange for favorable coverage. He vowed he will prove his innocence in court.
Opinion polls forecast similar results to the previous two stalemates, and the deadlock raises the possibility of a fourth election in quick succession.
Maverick politician Avigdor Lieberman once again looms as a potential kingmaker, with neither Netanyahu nor Gantz able to secure a parliamentary majority without his support. Lieberman has not committed himself to either candidate, though he has promised there will not be a fourth election.
Polling stations opened across the country at 7 a.m. Monday with exit polls expected at the end of the voting day at 10 p.m. (20:00 GMT) Official results are projected to come in overnight.
That's when the real jockeying may get underway, with attention shifting to President Reuven Rivlin who is responsible for choosing a candidate for prime minister. He is supposed to select the leader who he believes has the best chance of putting together a stable coalition. The honor usually goes to the head of the largest party, but not necessarily. Just as important is the number of lawmakers outside his own party who recommend him to the president.
Rivlin's selection will then have up to six weeks to form a coalition. If he fails, another candidate then has 28 days to form an alternative coalition. If that effort fails, new elections would be forced. It's a procedural process that remained hypothetical for Israel's first 70 years of existence until it played out after the last election in September. Should results match current opinion polls, and all the major player stick to the campaign promises, it may well repeat itself.
"This is usually a holiday, but to be honest I have no festivity in me just a sense of deep shame before you, the citizens of Israel," Rivlin said as he cast his ballot. "We don't deserve this. We don't deserve another horrible and filthy campaign like the one that ends today and we don't deserve this endless instability. We deserve a government that will work for us."