Israelis voted on Tuesday in an election that is expected to see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win a third term in office, pushing the Jewish state further to the right, away from peace with the Palestinians and towards a showdown with Iran.
However, Netanyahu’s own Likud party, running alongside the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu group, looks set to have fewer seats than in the previous parliament, with opinion polls showing a surge in support for the far-right Jewish Home party.
Political sources said Netanyahu, concerned by his apparent fall in popularity, might approach centre-left parties after the vote in an effort to broaden his coalition and present a more moderate face to Washington and other concerned allies.
“We want Israel to succeed, we vote Likud-Beitenu … The bigger it is, the more Israel will succeed,” Netanyahu said after casting his ballot alongside his wife and two sons.
Some 5.66 million Israelis are eligible to vote, with polling stations closing at 10 p.m. (2000 GMT). Full results are due by Wednesday morning, opening the way for coalition talks that could take several weeks.
The lacklustre election campaign failed to focus on any single issue and with a Netanyahu victory predicted by every opinion poll, the two main political blocs seemed to spend more time on internal feuding than confronting each other.
“There is a king sitting on the throne in Israel and I wanted to dethrone him, but it looks like that won’t happen,” said Yehudit Shimshi, a retired teacher voting in central Israel, on a bright, hot mid-winter morning.
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 onboard to control the 120-seat Knesset.
The former commando has traditionally looked to religious, conservative parties for backing and is widely expected to seek out the surprise star of the campaign, self-made millionaire Naftali Bennett who heads the Jewish Home party.
Bennett has ruled out any peace pact with the Palestinians and calls for the annexation of much of the occupied West Bank.