Israeli diplomats across the world began voting last week, kicking off the second national election the country has held in just six months.
About 3,500 staff and their families in more than 95 embassies and consulates cast their ballots early. The votes will be sent in sealed envelopes back to the country ahead of election day on 17 September.
Israelis are voting in a second poll that no one wanted – not the government, not the opposition, not the public and certainly not the treasury, which says the election will cost more than £100m.
The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appeared to win an April ballot when he and rightwing parliamentary allies came out ahead. However, his attempts to form a coalition government stalled over disagreements between Jewish ultra-Orthodox parties and secular politicians.
Avigdor Lieberman, a former defence minister and leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, had sought guarantees that ultra-Orthodox religion students, who are largely exempt from conscription, would be forced to serve in the army.
Netanyahu ultimately failed to quell the infighting. Rather than give the opposition a chance to forge a government, he instead pushed to dissolve the Knesset, triggering repeat elections and giving him another chance.
Lieberman, a Netanyahu ally-turned-rival, appears to be the biggest beneficiary of the second election. His public dispute with religious leaders has seen his party jump in popularity, possibly with secular Israelis, and it seems he could gather enough seats to become a kingmaker for the next government.
“Before the election [Lieberman] was seen as part of the centre-right or the right-religious coalition. Now he is a player in the middle of the map, a pivot player,” said Gideon Rahat, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.
There have been few other major changes this election compared with the last, and the campaign only started to gather speed this month. Netanyahu still faces three major corruption scandals – charges he denies – with pre-trial hearings to begin next month. As in previous election run-ups, he has been accused of appealing to hardliners and exploiting domestic divisions.
Last week he visited the volatile West Bank city of Hebron, a trip widely perceived as a bid to garner support from hardline ultra-nationalists. The 69-year-old leader has promised to annex Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, a decision that would kill off already dying hopes of an end to the occupation.
He also made a lightning visit to London and met Boris Johnson, a trip interpreted domestically as bolstering the image he likes to cultivate as Israel’s ultimate representative.
At home, he has sought to pass legislation that would place cameras in polling stations. His party was criticised in April for sending monitors with body-cameras to Arab constituencies – a move condemned as voter intimidation. Netanyahu argues cameras would lessen voter fraud.
Meanwhile, an old foe, former prime minister Ehud Barak, has returned to politics to unseat Netanyahu. In July, Barak made a pact with leftwing politicians to end what he said was Netanyahu’s “rule with the radicals, racists and the corrupt”, but the alliance does not look likely to gain many seats.
Arab parties, too, have formed an alliance in an attempt to regroup after the April poll. Then, disunity cost them seats, with voter turnout from Palestinian citizens of Israel – nearly a fifth of the population – low.
The two major parties – Likud and Blue and White – are close again and could draw. In many ways the true battle for power in Israel will begin the day after the election, when the negotiating begins to form a coalition government.
To crack the stalemate, Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White party, seems to be betting on a unity government with Likud, but one that does not include its leader, “King Bibi”. That would be a huge and taboo move for Likud, as Netanyahu has won his party more than a straight decade in power and become the country’s longest-serving prime minister.
Professor Rahat says there are no guarantees any government will be formed. Polls show the election result might make it even harder to achieve than it was in April, possibly giving no party leader a clear route to power.
“It’s a very complicated situation,” he said. “It’s like Brexit; people know what they don’t like, but there is no majority for anything positive.”
But there will be huge pressure to do it right this time. “I don’t see how you can wrap the nation into a third election.”