Israelis voted on Tuesday in an unexpectedly close general election that has in its final days become a referendum on the leadership of three-term prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the future of their country’s relations with the world.

Voting was due to continue until 10pm, when the first exit polls will give an early indication as to whether Mr Netanyahu can see off a challenge from Isaac Herzog, whose centre-left Zionist Union is leading the Israeli leader’s rightwing Likud in the polls.

Neither of the front-running parties is likely to gain enough seats on its own to declare victory definitively, as they will need to shore up support in ensuing coalition talks which could take weeks. After consulting with the parties Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, will hand the task of forming the next government to the party leader he thinks is best placed to do so – almost certainly either Mr Herzog or Mr Netanyahu.

Although the vote was expected to be close, by Tuesday afternoon the prime minister appeared worried about a possible loss at the polls and posted a video on his Facebook page saying “Right-wing rule is in jeopardy. Arabs are voting in droves”. The comment quickly went viral on social media and attracted widespread criticism.

Mr Herzog condemned Mr Netanyahu’s remarks, saying they showed Israelis risked getting an “extremist government”

Ahmed Tibi, a candidate for the Arab Joint List party, accused the prime minister of “inciting against Arab voters who are taking advantage of their natural and democratic right as citizens”.

Some voters agreed. “(Netanyahu) just said something today about how the Arabs are going to vote, and we should be alarmed by that,” said Hagit Saad, a screenwriter casting her ballot with her husband and two small children in Tel Aviv. “They are citizens of this country, and they are exercising their democratic rights,” she said, adding: “I think this election is very anti-Bibi, more than anything else.”

In what many observers took to be another sign of panic in Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party on Tuesday afternoon, journalists were summoned to the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem to hear him make a plea to his supporters to turn out and vote before polls closed. However, Israel’s Central Elections Committee barred the broadcast of his remarks on the grounds that they were election propaganda.

Election days are public holidays in Israel and in Tel Aviv – traditionally a bastion of support for Mr Herzog’s party and others on the centre-left – the city had a festive feel.

“A lot of people consider this an optimistic time, time for a revolution even,” said Idan Sapir, an employee of a tech company, who said he had voted for Mr Herzog mainly because he wanted to see Mr Netanyahu replaced.

However Batsheva Ortemberg, an elderly volunteer in a historical documents archive, said she was voting “just for Likud, and just Bibi.”

“He is the best-looking, he is a great guy,” Ms Ortemberg said, dropping her Likud ballot into its envelope.

Despite predictions of a record turnout, by 4pm 45.4 per cent of eligible voters had cast their ballots, down 1 per cent on 2013.

Mr Netanyahu called the snap election in December after sacking Tzipi Livni Livni of the centrist Kadima partyand fellow centrist Yair Lapid from his government, wagering that a new poll would firm up support for a more stable rightwing coalition he could govern more easily.

However, the Zionist Union has pulled ahead of Likud over the past fortnight, and was leading the party by four seats in the 120-seat Knesset in the final opinion polls published on Friday with a projected 24 to 26 seats, compared with Likud’s 20 to 22.

On Monday, in a bid to shore up support among hard-right voters, Mr Netanyahu visited Har Homa, an East Jerusalem settlement built over US objections on land Israel occupied in 1967, and vowed that if re-elected he would not allow a Palestinian state to be created.

Mr Herzog, a former corporate lawyer who has held several past cabinet posts, attacked Mr Netanyahu’s economic record and promised to spend 7bn shekels ($1.75bn) more on social programmes, reopen talks with the Palestinians, and repair relations with the US if re-elected.

Running third in the polls after Zionist Union and Likud is the Joint List, an amalgamation of four parties representing Israel’s Arab minority that is projected to win about 13 Knesset seats.

The party has ruled out joining any government, but its leader Ayman Odeh said on Monday that he did not rule out recommending Mr Herzog to form a cabinet, after consulting with the party on its policies.

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