TEL AVIV — Israelis voted on Tuesday in an election seen returning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power with a rightwing coalition charged with tackling the key issues of peace talks and Iran’s nuclear drive.
Long queues formed outside several polling stations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv after a slow start, with turnout standing 55.5 per cent four hours before polls were to close at 2000 GMT, according to the Central Elections Committee.
Throughout the day, participation figures have been consistently higher than in the two previous elections in 2006 and 2009.
Polling ahead of the vote had projected an easy win for the joint list fusing Netanyahu’s Likud with the hardline nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, although they are only expected to win about 32 mandates, just over a quarter of the 120 seats in parliament.
The vote is likely to usher in a more rightwing government which will be less inclined to seek a peace deal with the Palestinians and could increase Israel’s diplomatic isolation, analysts say.
“The stronger Likud-Beitenu is, the easier it will be to lead Israel successfully,” said Netanyahu after voting in Jerusalem’s upscale Rehavia neighbourhood.
The new government will face key diplomatic and foreign policy questions, including how to handle Iran’s nuclear programme, which much of the world believes masks a weapons drive, and a Middle East profoundly changed by the Arab uprisings.
But domestic challenges will be no less pressing, with a major budget crisis and austerity cuts on the horizon, even as Israelis express widespread discontent over spiralling prices.
Opinion polls showed Likud-Beitenu winning between 32 and 35 seats, down from the 42 they currently hold but well above the 17 likely to be won by its closest contender, the centre-left Labour Party.
Labour leader Shelly Yachimovich is expected to become the new opposition leader after pledging she would not join a Netanyahu government.
The campaign’s big surprise has been Naftali Bennett, the charismatic 40-year-old who is the new leader of the far-right national religious Jewish Home.
The party, which firmly opposes a Palestinian state and won just three seats in 2009, is on course to win 15, making it the third faction in parliament and a likely partner in any future coalition government.
Bennett’s success has rattled Netanyahu, with the 63-year-old premier pushing to stem the defection of voters to Jewish Home by burnishing his own pro-settlement credentials.
Among settlers, who make up about 4 per cent of the electorate, there is a clear preference for Bennett and the extremist Otzma LeYisrael Party, although some remain faithful to Likud.
“Between Likud, Bennett and Otzma LeYisrael, we have some very good candidates,” explained Daniel Hizmi from the hardline settler enclave in the Palestinian city of Hebron, whose residents are confident the new government will be strongly pro-settlement.
Election day is a public holiday in Israel, and in Tel Aviv thousands packed the beaches to enjoy a snap of unseasonably warm weather, but voting stations were also busy as people turned out to cast their ballots.
“People were undecided because the three centre parties were all saying the same thing,” said Shmulik Kaplan, 62, who admitted he was also unsure — until he entered the polling booth.
Polls suggest the rightwing-religious bloc will take between 61 and 67 seats, compared with 53 to 57 for the centre-left and Arab parties.
Some 5.65 million Israelis are eligible to vote at 10,132 polling stations.