Israelis expected to return Netanyahu to office

Associated Press
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot together with his wife Sara, left and sons Yair and Avner, background left,  at a polling station in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013. Israelis headed to polling stations Tuesday to cast votes in a parliamentary election expected to return  Netanyahu to office despite years of stalled peacemaking with the Palestinians and mounting economic troubles. (AP Photo/Uriel Sinai, Pool)
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JERUSALEM (AP) — Israelis voted Tuesday in an election expected to keep hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm of government for a third term despite his rocky record: No peace process with Palestinians, growing diplomatic isolation and signs of economic trouble ahead.

The balloting will likely leave Netanyahu, 63, leading an even more hawkish coalition than the current one — dominated by hard-liners opposed to concessions that could bring Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Such a result would probably keep peace efforts deadlocked and put Israel on a path to further run-ins with key ally Washington.

President Barack Obama has had a turbulent relationship with Netanyahu, and the two leaders could find themselves on a collision course in their new terms.

The Obama administration said Tuesday that regardless of the results of the election, the U.S. approach to the conflict would not change.

"We will continue to make clear that only through direct negotiations can the Palestinians and the Israelis ... achieve the peace they both deserve," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. He said the complexity of the conflict, not Obama's relationship with the Israeli leader, was the main impediment.

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged Obama to now make the Middle East peace process his top priority.

"We are approaching the last chance to bring about such a solution," Hague warned.

For the first time in decades, the conflict with the Palestinians was not the defining issue in the election campaign after many Israelis came to believe a peace deal is impossible.

That deprived Netanyahu's more moderate opponents of their traditional focus for elections and the fractured center-left camp failed to unite behind a viable alternative candidate, practically ensuring another Netanyahu victory.

Yifat Segev, like many Israelis, said she was undecided until she stepped into the polling booth and noted the lack of excitement that has characterized previous races. In the end, she chose centrist newcomer Yair Lapid over Netanyahu, known by his nickname, Bibi.

"I figured Bibi's going to be prime minister anyway, so I might as well give some power to Lapid," said the 31-year-old mother of three from the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion.

Netanyahu is widely seen, even by some opponents, as the man best suited to lead the country at a delicate time.

He has maintained a lead with a message that the country needs a tough-minded and experienced leader to face down dangers including the Iranian nuclear program, potentially loose chemical weapons in Syria and the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Egypt and other Arab countries after the Arab Spring.

There was still room for a surprise outcome. Election officials reported relatively high turnout compared to previous years, boosted by sunny, spring-like weather. A heavy turnout could favor Netanyahu's opponents, whose voters tend to have a lower participation rate than the highly motivated hard-liners. In addition, opinion polls have often been wrong in past elections.

Just two hours before polls closed, Netanyahu implored his supporters of his Likud Party to go out and vote.

"The Likud rule is in danger, I ask you to leave everything and go out now and vote," Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page. "It is very important to ensure the future of the state of Israel."

Netanyahu was smiling when he arrived early Tuesday at a heavily secured polling station in Jerusalem with his wife, Sara, and two sons, both first-time voters.

Many opponents yielded the security issue to Netanyahu and instead campaigned on economic concerns, such as the high cost of living and the government's much-maligned practice of giving generous handouts and draft exemptions to the ultra-Orthodox Jews.

While Israel's economy has remained on solid footing, Netanyahu's government has run up a huge deficit that could force steep budget cuts in coming months.

Only one major contender, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, campaigned on a platform centered on the need for peace with Palestinians.

Livni implored voters to think about the "big decisions" at hand.

"The vote I have cast includes the hopes of all the people who don't want four more years of Netanyahu and this government," she said.

In the run-up to the election, opinion polls universally forecast Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance emerging as the largest single bloc, controlling roughly one-quarter of parliament's 120 seats and in a strong position to form a majority coalition.

Should the right-wing and religious parties somehow fail to muster a majority, there will be a mad scramble on the center-left to try to form a coalition on their own.

Under that scenario, Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich could end up as prime minister. The former radio journalist who once backed Israel's Communist party campaigned on a promise to narrow the gap between rich and poor and has said she will not join a Netanyahu government.

In all, 32 parties were running. Israel has historically had multiparty governments because no party has ever won an outright majority in the country's 64-year history. Polls close at 10 p.m. local time (3 p.m. ET, 2000 GMT), with preliminary results to be released shortly after that.

In a sign of the times, many Israelis advertised their voting choice by photographing their ballot slips and uploading them to Facebook.

Netanyahu has won praise at home for drawing the world's attention to Iran's suspect nuclear program and for keeping the economy on solid ground at a time of global turmoil.

But internationally, he has repeatedly clashed with allies over his handling of the peace process. Peace talks with the Palestinians have remained deadlocked throughout his term, in large part because of his continued construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

A shift by Netanyahu away from his tough line toward the Palestinians appears unlikely. Netanyahu himself has only grudgingly voiced conditional support for a Palestinian state, and his own party is now dominated by hard-liners who oppose even this.

Likud primaries robbed the party of its most moderate figures, and 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. That could translate into a more hawkish government.

A likely coalition partner, Naftali Bennett of the surging Jewish Home Party, has even called for annexing large parts of the West Bank, the core of any future Palestinian state.

Motti Saban, a 25-year-old student in Jerusalem, said he would vote for Jewish Home.

"We are right-wing and we want to see a parliament that is more right-wing than now," Saban said. "Social issues affect us all, but I won't give up Jerusalem. That's more important," Saban said.

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Associated Press writers Amy Teibel and Diaa Hadid in Jerusalem and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.

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