Netanyahu poised for win as Israelis go to polls
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Benjamin Netanyahu is almost certain to win another term as Israel's Prime Minister in Tuesday's parliamentary poll, but he appears fated to face growing isolation abroad.
Israelis began voting in a parliamentary election on Tuesday that is expected to hand Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a third term and push the country further to the right, with the broken peace process with Palestinians taking a back seat to concerns over a nuclear Iran and a slowing economy.
After a slow start, the pace of voting picked up, with long queues outside several polling stations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Nine hours into the voting, turnout stood at 46.6 percent, according to the Central Elections Committee.
Opinion polls in the run-up to the election showed Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, which is running on a joint list with the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, poised to pick up 32 seats. The centre-left Labour party, Likud’s closest contender, is slated to claim only 17 seats.
“This looks like an election where Israel is set to take a lurch to the right,” said France 24’s Chris Moore from Jerusalem. “Many pollsters are predicting a massively increased representation in the Knesset for religious and conservative parties.”
Different surveys suggested that right-wing and religious parties would take between 61 and 67 seats, compared with 53 to 57 for the centre-left and Arab parties, in the 120-seat Knesset.
Netanyahu has pounded on Iran’s suspected nuclear programme, making it his key issue during the campaign and promising to stop Tehran from enriching enough uranium to build a single bomb.
But the Iranian threat did not appear to register as an important campaign issue among voters. According to a poll by the leading Haaretz daily, 47 percent of Israelis thought social and economic issues were the most pressing concern, with as few as 10 percent citing Iran as a priority for the next government.
“The summer before last there were unprecedented protests here in Israel against things like the cost of living and other economic issues,” noted France 24’s Moore. “And that is what remains at the forefront for many voters.”
Data last week showed Israel’s budget deficit rose to 4.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2012, double the original estimate, prompting many observers to say Netanyahu will likely face the task of implementing unpopular tax hikes and spending cuts.
Netanyahu arrived early on Tuesday at a heavily secured polling station in Jerusalem to cast a ballot with his wife. The prime minister, who was first in office from 1996 to 1999, and has now been in power since 2009, told reporters that resounding support for his list would be “good for Israel”.
However, analysts said the prime minister was likely to face increasing diplomatic isolation in the coming years.
In an otherwise lacklustre campaign, far-right millionaire Naftali Bennett has been a rare surprise. His Jewish Home party could finish the election in third place with around 14 seats.
“Bennet is vehemently against a Palestinian state and for the Israeli settlers,” Moore said. “He has caught the imagination of a significant part of the Israeli electorate.”
With Bennet threatening to erode his voting base, Netanyahu has vowed to pursue the Jewish settlement of lands seized during the 1967 Middle East war if he stays in power.
But that policy would put him at odds with most of his international partners, in particular with President Barack Obama, who has said he believes in a two-state solution and was sworn in for a second four-year term on Monday.
Some 5.65 million Israelis are eligible to vote in Tuesday's election. Television exit polls will broadcast immediately after polls close around 10pm local time.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)