By AMY TEIBEL, Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was expected to win a third term Tuesday in the first election in decades in which the Mideast peace process didn't take center stage, with many Israelis focused more on economic woes than ending their conflict with the Palestinians.
The election comes at a troubled time for Israel. Netanyahu's hard line on concessions to the Palestinians has put Israel into conflict with the international community, increasing its diplomatic isolation.
A declining economy and ballooning budget deficit mean painful government spending cuts and possible tax increases are in store for an electorate already bowed by the high cost of living.
In the background looms the possibility that Israel would attack Iran over its suspect nuclear program, a move that would likely draw harsh retaliation by Iran and its proxies on Israel's northern and southern borders.
Still, many voters said they'd cast ballots for Netanyahu's list because they see no viable alternative. Polls suggest hard-line and religious parties that have been his traditional allies will form the core of his next coalition government.
The big question is whether Netanyahu 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.
Netanyahu, 63, was smiling when he arrived early at a heavily secured polling station in Jerusalem with his wife, Sara, and two sons, both first-time voters. After voting, the prime minister told reporters that a flood of ballots for his list "is good for Israel."
The prime minister, whose first government in the 1990s unraveled over similar issues of peace talks and a struggling economy, projected himself during the three-month 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 commanding at least a narrow majority.
Yakov Krugliack of the Nokdim settlement in the West Bank said quality of life was foremost in his mind as he went to the polls.
"The economic challenge will be the biggest challenge of this government," he said. "I would like to have a house, I would like to live a good life with my family."
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 (3 p.m. EST, 2000 GMT), and preliminary results are expected about two hours later.
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. The pro-settler Jewish Home — a likely coalition partner that has drawn a surprisingly large number of votes away from Netanyahu's list, according to polls — is even pressing to annex large chunks 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. While social issues are important, he said, they are being promoted most by left-leaning parties more open to making territorial concessions, including partitioning the holy city of Jerusalem.
"So yes, social issues affect us all, but I won't give up Jerusalem, that's more important," Saban said.