Millions of voters in Israel are casting ballots in a poll that is widely expected to grant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his third term in office, following an unusually lackluster campaign that has been largely devoid of fireworks.
Given Netanyahu’s certainty to win, and the historic inability of any Israeli party to secure an absolute majority, the Likud leader needs to form coalitions quickly in order to move ahead on his policies, especially Iran and Palestinian statehood.
But Netanyahu’s overall popularity has been sagging, with his right-wing Likud-Yisrael Beitneu coalition losing some support to far–right parties, like the ultra-nationalist Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party.
Naftali Bennett, the leader of Jewish Home, has called for the annexation of much of the West Bank and staunchly opposes any peace deal with the Palestinians. (Bennett, a self-made millionaire was Netanyahu’s former chief of staff.)
As such, Reuters reported that Netanyahu may seek to form coalitions with center-left parties after the election is over in order to broaden his popularity and mandate, and present a more “moderate” face to the Europeans and Americans.
Despite Netanyahu’s strident focus on Iran and the Palestinians, pre-election polls suggest that the average Israeli is far more concerned with the nation’s economy and rising rates of poverty.
At 2 p.m. local time on Tuesday, Israel’s election committee said voter turnout was more than 38 percent, the highest such level since 1999.
According to voter surveys, Likud-Beitenu is expected to take 32 seats in the 120-seat Knesset (parliament), 10 less than they gained in the 2009 election, while Jewish Home may snag 14 seats, which would make it the third largest party in the Knesset.
Likud’s principal opposition, the Labour Party, is projected to win 17 seats (double its current strength) and has already stated it will not join any coalition with Netanyahu.
Labour has called for peace negotiations with the Palestinians, while Netanyahu has approved the construction of thousands of Jewish homes on the West Bank (a move that has alienated some Western leaders, especially U.S. President Barack Obama).
Labour's leader, Shelly Yachimovich, told reporters after casting her vote in Tel Aviv: "This is not a dream, this can be done. A few more mandates and Bibi [Netanyahu] will not be prime minister."
Results of the election will be released on Wednesday morning.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.