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Israel is voting today. Here are the very basics.

Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
  1. Israelis vote today in a national election, the first since 2013, to form their next government. The country has a parliamentary system, which means Israelis vote for parties rather than individuals.
  2. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud is in a very tight race with the center-left Zionist Union, led by Isaac Herzog.
  3. Polls have broken Herzog's way recently, but Israel's complicated political system makes it almost impossible to know which party will end up leading the government. So it's not clear whether Netanyahu will remain prime minister or not.
  4. Preliminary results will probably start coming in very late Tuesday night eastern US time at the earliest, but exit polls will be available around 4 pm.

An unexpectedly close race

isaac herzog

Isaac Herzog at the market. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

The main storyline in the Israeli election is how surprisingly close it's gotten.

When the election was first scheduled in December, polls showed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party likely to keep power.

Now, most polls show the center-left opposition coalition, Zionist Union, ahead by a few points. It's still far from clear how things will turn out, but Netanyahu could lose the office he's held since 2009 (and held previously in the late 1990s).

The Zionist Union, a center-left alliance between Isaac Herzog's Labor Party and Tzipi Livni's much smaller Hatnua party, has capitalized on two basic trends in Israeli politics. First, socio-economic issues — particularly the cost of living — have become top voter concerns. Things like food and housing have gotten very expensive in Israel, to the point where voters appear more concerned with the economy than security issues such as Iran or the conflict with the Palestinians. This benefits the center-left, whom the public trusts more on the economy than they do on security.

Second, many Israelis appear pretty tired of Netanyahu. He's been in power for six years and has campaigned for prime minister six times since 1996. While he still certainly has his base of support, some Israelis are ready for a change.

Still, Israel's political system gives Netanyahu a leg up

netanyahu campaign

Netanyahu at a Likud campaign meeting in January. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

But don't count Netanyahu out yet. Even if his party gets less votes than Herzog's, he still very well could hold on to office.

In the Israeli system, parties get seats in the Knesset (parliament) proportional to the number of votes they receive. To form a government, enough parties need to come together in a coalition to secure 61 seats (there are 120 in the Knesset). Netanyahu's Likud and Zionist Union are projected to win fewer than 30 seats each, meaning that either would have to attract lots of smaller parties to form a coalition.

So it's not just enough to get more votes. You also have to get more small parties to join you. And Netanyahu is better positioned do attract smaller parties than his rivals are.

Netanyahu's natural allies on the right — hard-core nationalists such as Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home party — are likely to outperform Herzog's friends on the political left. So Netanyahu may have an easier time forming a right-wing government than Herzog would forming a center-left government. Any coalition that Herzog is likely to form would probably include parties with some very different believes (for example, both secularist and religious parties), which make it both harder to form the coalition and harder to keep it together.

This coalition-building process could take weeks. So it's possible that we will not know who won the election for some time.

What to watch for

moshe kahlon

Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon. (Gil Cohen Magen/AFP/Getty Images)

As the day goes on, there are two things that are especially important to watch for. First, an unexpected surprise in the vote returns. Israeli polls are often wrong for a variety of reasons, so Herzog, Netanyahu, or one of important smaller parties could out-perform or under-perform expectations. These surprises could change the results, and the character of the new government, dramatically.

If all goes as expected, then one party worth watching closely is Moshe Kahlon's new Kulanu party. Kahlon is a former Likud minister, but is running on a centrist, economy-focused platform. He could join with either major party and, the way the math works out right now, either would need him for a coalition. The way Kahlon acts in the coming days — how his party does in the polls and who he chooses to side with — could very well be critical in determining Israel's new coalition.