, JERUSALEM, Jan 22 – Polls opened on Tuesday in Israel’s general election, which is expected to return Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power at the head of a government of hardline right-wing and religious parties.
The ballot to choose Israel’s 19th parliament is likely to usher in a sharply right-wing government, diminishing the chances of a peace deal with the Palestinians and raising the prospect of greater diplomatic isolation for the Jewish state.
Those elected will face key diplomatic and foreign policy questions, including Iran’s nuclear programme, which much of the world believes is a cover for a weapons drive, and pressure to revive peace talks with the Palestinians.
No less pressing are the domestic challenges, including a major budget crisis and looming austerity cuts, which are likely to exacerbate already widespread discontent over spiralling prices.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, running on a joint list with the hardline secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, is well ahead of its rivals.
But polls taken shortly before the election showed falling support for Likud-Beitenu, which is now seen taking 32 seats — 10 fewer than it currently holds — although the centre-left Labour party, its closest contender, is projected to win a distant 17.
Final polls suggested the right-wing-religious bloc would take between 61 and 67 seats, compared with 53 to 57 for the centre-left and Arab parties.
In a largely uneventful campaign, the surprise element has been Naftali Bennett, the young, charismatic new leader of the hardline national religious Jewish Home who took over the party in November and is a rising star among settlers.
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 explosion onto the political scene has rattled Netanyahu, pundits say, with the premier pushing hard to stem the defection of voters to Jewish Home by burnishing his own credentials as a defender of Israeli settlement in the occupied territories.
Some 5.65 million Israelis are eligible to vote in Tuesday’s parliamentary elections.
Voters will be able to cast ballots at 10,132 polling stations which are open for 15 hours later, with television exit polls due to be broadcast immediately after they close.
Security has been tightened across the country and more than 20,000 police officers have been deployed to secure the vote.
With Netanyahu almost certain to return to the premier’s office, the big question what his coalition will look like and how it will steer Israel on key issues such as settlement activity, talks with the Palestinians and Iran.
But pundits were unanimous he would pick his natural allies to form the next government, which was widely expected to be dominated by right-wing and religious parties.
“In the next coalition, which will include Likud-Beitenu, Jewish Home, Shas, United Torah Judaism and perhaps Yesh Atid as well, there will be a majority, for the first time in history, for the ultra-Orthodox and religious MPs,” wrote Shalom Yerushalmi in Maariv newspaper.
“This is mainly a great victory for the settlers, who have become the leading ideological force in the country.”