Israelis began trickling into polling stations yesterday morning to cast their votes in a parliamentary election expected to return Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to office despite years of stalled peacemaking with the Palestinians and mounting economic troubles.
Many voters have said they will cast ballots for Netanyahu because they see no viable alternative. Polls suggest hawkish and religious parties that have been his traditional allies will form the core of his next coalition government.
The big question is whether he will be able to woo centrist parties with more moderate positions on peacemaking into his governing coalition — and whether they would have any influence on his policies.
The election comes at a troubled time for Israel. Netanyahu’s hard-line stance toward the Palestinians has created mounting diplomatic isolation, the economy is slowing and the budget deficit has ballooned. In the background is the question of whether Israel will attack Iran over its suspect nuclear program.
A smiling Netanyahu arrived early at a heavily secured polling station in Jerusalem with his wife, Sara, and two sons, both first-time voters.
After casting his vote, the prime minister told reporters that a flood of ballots for his list “is good for Israel.”
Thirty-two parties are running for representation in Israel’s 120-member parliament. Israel historically has had multiparty governments because no party has ever won an outright majority of 61 seats in the country’s 64-year history.
Polls closed at 10pm local time, and preliminary results were expected about two hours later.
All the polls show Netanyahu’s Likud Party — in alliance with the more hawkish Israel Beitenu party — winning more than a quarter of the seats, and together with other rightist and religious parties should command at least a narrow overall majority.
The conventional wisdom is that the incoming coalition will be even more hard-line than the current government. Up to one-sixth of the incoming legislature is expected to be settlers who advocate holding on to captured land the Palestinians want for a future state. A likely coalition partner, the pro-settler Jewish Home, is even pressing to annex large chunks of the West Bank, the core of any future Palestinian state.
The prospect of another Netanyahu term has fueled a sense of despair among Palestinians, who fear that his ambitious plans for settlement construction over the next four years could kill their dreams of establishing an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories Israel captured in 1967 and still controls to varying degrees.
Their hope is that US President Barack Obama, emboldened by his own re-election, will put heavy pressure on Netanyahu to return to negotiations.
However, it is equally possible that the US leader won’t risk squandering political capital on the peace process unless he is convinced Israel is willing to make concessions that Netanyahu has not yet signaled he is ready to make.