JERUSALEM (AP) — Israelis began trickling into polling stations Tuesday morning to cast their votes in a parliamentary election expected to return Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to office despite years of stalled peacemaking with the Palestinians and mounting economic troubles.
Many voters have said they'll cast ballots for Netanyahu because they see no viable alternative. Polls suggest hawkish and religious parties that have been his traditional allies will form the core of his next coalition government.
The big question is whether he will be able to woo centrist parties with more moderate positions on peacemaking into his governing coalition — and whether they would have any influence on his policies.
The election comes at a troubled time for Israel. Netanyahu's hard-line stance toward the Palestinians has created mounting diplomatic isolation, the economy is slowing and the budget deficit has ballooned, and in the background is the question of whether Israel will attack Iran over its suspect nuclear program.
A smiling Netanyahu arrived early at a heavily secured polling station in Jerusalem with his wife, Sara, and two sons, both first-time voters.
After casting his vote, the prime minister told reporters that a flood of ballots for his list "is good for Israel."
Thirty-two parties are running for representation in Israel's 120-member parliament. Israel historically has had multiparty governments because no party has ever won an outright majority of 61 seats in the country's 64-year history.
Polls close at 10 p.m. local time (2000 GMT), and preliminary results are expected about two hours later.
The three-month election campaign has been largely bereft of any debate over the critical issues facing the country, focusing more on the major parties' leaders. The 63-year-old Netanyahu has positioned himself in the campaign as a tough leader who protects Israelis' security in a hostile region. All the polls show his Likud Party — in alliance with the more hawkish Israel Beitenu party — winning more than a quarter of the seats, and together with other rightist and religious parties should command at least a narrow overall majority.
The conventional wisdom is that the incoming coalition will be even more hard-line than the current government. Up to one-sixth of the incoming legislature is expected to be settlers who advocate holding on to captured land the Palestinians want for a future state. A likely coalition partner, the pro-settler Jewish Home, is even pressing to annex large chunks of the West Bank, the core of any future Palestinian state.
Some Israelis warn that the continued occupation of millions of disenfranchised Palestinians will turn Israel into an apartheid-like state where a Jewish minority will ultimately rule over an Arab majority.
Yet the conflict with the Palestinians, long a dominant issue in Israeli politics, has barely registered as a campaign issue. Many Israelis have despaired of the prospect of making peace, believing Israel's best possible offers have been made and spurned, sometimes violently. Many are also disillusioned with the bitter experience of Israel's unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which led to years of attacks from militants there.
The country's center-left opposition, which rallied around the issue for decades, is badly splintered and has failed to produce a compelling alternative leader. The Labor Party, traditionally the dominant standard-bearer for peacemaking, is now more focused on the average Israeli's frustration at having to struggle to make ends meet.
Prospects for peacemaking would not necessarily be improved even if Netanyahu, in his desire to establish a broad, stable government, reaches across the aisle to co-opt lawmakers interested in clinching an accord. Two moderate partners had joined his current government but ultimately bolted, in part because they didn't think he was serious about making peace.
The prospect of another Netanyahu term has fueled a sense of despair among Palestinians, who fear that his ambitious plans for settlement construction over the next four years could kill their dreams of establishing an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, territories Israel captured in 1967 and still controls to varying degrees.
Their hope is that President Barack Obama, emboldened by his own re-election, will put heavy pressure on Netanyahu to return to negotiations. But it is equally possible that the U.S. leader won't risk squandering political capital on the peace process unless he is convinced Israel is willing to make concessions that Netanyahu has not yet signaled he is ready to make.