JERUSALEM — Israelis head to the polls on Tuesday in a vote seen as a referendum on embattled 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 to elect 120 deputies for the Knesset, or parliament, with polling stations due to open at 7am.
The ballot to choose Israel's 20th parliament came about after Netanyahu, 65, called snap elections late last year as his fractious coalition government teetered on the brink of collapse.
It will be Israel's third election since 2009 and the biggest challenge for Netanyahu, who is seeking a third consecutive term.
The veteran rightwing leader is not certain to come first in the vote, with the final opinion polls on Friday giving the centre-left Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog a 3-4 seat lead over Netanyahu.
But the surveys also show Netanyahu will have an advantage when it comes to piecing together a coalition with smaller allies from the right.
The new premier will have to deal with a series of daunting domestic and foreign policy challenges including Iran's nuclear programme, repairing ties with the United States and maintaining economic growth.
And then there are the tricky issues of ties with the Palestinians following the collapse of peace talks last year, instability left over from the 2014 Gaza war and a looming legal challenge at the International Criminal Court.
There are 25 lists battling it out for seats, in a reflection of Israel's diverse political map, but only 11 are forecast to enter the Knesset.
Under Israel's proportional representation system, any party can enter parliament if it receives more than 3.25 per cent of the vote.
By law, the final election results must be published within eight days of the vote, but a spokesman for the Central Elections Committee said the counting would be finished on Thursday afternoon.
Netanyahu's only realistic challenger is Herzog, who in pushing for social justice and fresh talks with the Palestinians is offering voters a stark alternative.
Exit polls are due to be released shortly after voting at more than 10,000 polling stations close at 2000 GMT, with the main results due out early on Wednesday. — AFP