Polls open in fourth Israeli election in two years
Nearly 14,000 polling stations opened at 7am (5am GMT) across the country, several thousand more than previous elections to prevent crowding in the pandemic, Israeli media reported.
Authorities erected special busses to create mobile voting booths, that have additional protective measures, for those who are Covid-19 positive, local media reported.
Polling booths were also set up in hospitals where those who were sick could cast their ballot, reports added.
Voting will close at 10pm (8pm GMT), when exit polls will likely point to voting trends rather than a clear winner because of the tight race.
Benjamin Netanyahu is Israel's longest-serving premier and its most popular politician, but his inability in recent years to unite a stable governing majority behind him has mired the country in unprecedented political gridlock.
He is facing an electorate of some 6.5 million registered voters, after leading a successful coronavirus vaccination effort that has already fully inoculated half of Israel's roughly nine million people, a pace envied by much of the world.
But while his right-wing Likud will likely win the most seats, 71-year-old Netanyahu will need coalition partners to secure a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.
That means Israel is looking at three possible outcomes: another coalition under Netanyahu, an ideologically divided government united only by its opposition to him, or a looming fifth election.
Corruption trial, extremists
Netanyahu is currently on trial over corruption charges - allegations he denies, but which have helped fuel a protest movement with weekly rallies outside his Jerusalem residence.
The prime minister has said he will not seek to block the trial and is looking forward to being exonerated, but critics suspect that if he earns a majority, he may seek parliamentary action to delay or end the process.
To form a government, Netanyahu will have to come to terms with small factions that control a handful of seats, possibly including a new extremist, far-right alliance called Religious Zionism.
If Religious Zionism crosses the 3.25 percent support threshold, as polls predict, it will send to parliament Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has voiced admiration for the mass-murderer of 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron in 1994, Baruch Goldstein.
Even top Likud member and energy minister Yuval Steinitz said it would be improper to sit with Ben-Gvir, who has vowed to secure a prominent role in government before agreeing to join Netanyahu.
Anti-Netanyahu bloc divided
Israel's electorate has migrated rightward since the turn of the century, following the failed Oslo Peace Process and the ensuing Palestinian uprising, or intifada.
Polling suggests right-wing parties could win up to 80 seats, meaning that "whoever becomes prime minister, the country is likely to espouse a right-wing direction", Dahlia Scheindlin, a political analyst and pollster, told AFP.
For Lapid that means any path to power will require an alliance with Netanyahu's rivals on the right.
That list includes former senior Likud member Gideon Saar, leader of the New Hope party that could win up to 10 seats, and who has ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led government.
Lapid would also likely have to align with a staunch ideological rival, religious nationalist Naftali Bennett.
The multi-millionaire former tech entrepreneur and one-time Netanyahu protege has fallen out with the prime minister and hammered him during the campaign, while not ruling out a reunion.
Bennett's Yamina party is, therefore, seen as a likely kingmaker.