Voting has begun in Israel’s general elections, which are expected to return Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to a third term with a smaller majority in a coalition government of rightwing and religious parties.
Security has been tightened across the country for Tuesday’s polls, which began at 7am (5:00GMT), and more than 20,000 police officers have been deployed to secure the vote.
Opinion polls predict that Netanyahu’s Likud party, which has forged an electoral pact with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu group, will take the most seats in the parliamentary election.
But no Israeli party has ever secured an absolute majority, meaning that Netanyahu, who says that dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions is his top priority, will have to bring various allies on board to control the 120-seat Knesset.
Netanyahu has vowed to pursue the Jewish settlement of lands seized during the 1967 Middle East war if he stays in power, a policy that would push Israel away from peace with the Palestinians, put it at odds with Washington, and deepen the country’s international isolation.
The next government is also facing challenges at home, including a major budget crisis and looming austerity cuts which are likely to exacerbate already widespread discontent over spiraling prices and the cost of living.
With the campaign nearing its end on Monday, party leaders and activists fought to secure the support of the as-yet undecided 15 percent of the electorate.
One of the key issues of the vote has been the rising cost of living, with Netanyahu coming in for heavy criticism over his economic record.
In a last-minute attempt to sway voters, Netanyahu on Sunday named a former Likud minister known for his success in slashing mobile phone costs to the top post in the Israel Land’s Administration in a move he claimed would significantly lower the price of housing.
But his opponents slammed the move as a “fig leaf” and several pundits said it was testimony to the “panic” that Netanyahu was feeling ahead of the vote.
“The prime minister did something yesterday that must not be done in an election campaign, certainly not two days before the public goes to the polls: He projected panic,” wrote the Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
Television exit polls are expected to be broadcast immediately after polling stations close at 22pm (20:00GMT) on Tuesday.
In central Tel Aviv, a bastion of support for Israel’s left, voters are worried about the almost certain prospect of Netanyahu leading another government. “Everyone thinks Bibi will be the prime minister again,” Shiri Forer, a supporter of the Labour party, said outside of a voting station. “But we are hoping the next coalition will move to the left.”
Exit polls are expected to start coming in around 10pm local time. Because of Israel’s system of coalition politics, it may be several days before the exact shape of a new government is finalized.
Most Palestinian citizens of Israel don’t think the vote in Israel will matter for their lives. “The left kills us, the right kills us, for us it’s all the same,” Hamza, a taxi driver in east Jerusalem who didn’t want his last name published, told Al Jazeera.
(Al Jazeera and Agencies – www.aljazeera.com)