By Josef Federman
Israelis voted Tuesday in an election likely to keep hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm of government for a third term despite a turbulent record: no peace process with Palestinians, growing diplomatic isolation and signs of economic trouble ahead.
The balloting capped a lackluster three-month campaign that was expected to leave Netanyahu at the helm of a coalition dominated by hard-liners opposed to concessions that could bring Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
The outcome, if opinion polls are accurate, was expected to put Israel on the path to continued deadlock in peace efforts with the Palestinians and further run-ins with the international community, including its key ally, the United States.
Voters appeared to be overlooking Netanyahu's record over the past four years, and the conflict with the Palestinians, long the defining issue in Israeli politics, was largely absent from the campaign. That reflected the widespread Israeli belief that a peace deal is impossible and the dovish opposition's failure to unite behind a viable alternative candidate.
Netanyahu is widely seen, even by some opponents, as the man best suited to lead the country at a turbulent 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 amid the Arab Spring.
The results were not assured. 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 inaccurate in the past.
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."
Many opponents have largely yielded the security issue to Netanyahu and instead campaigned on economic issues, such as the country's high cost of living and its much-maligned custom of giving generous handouts and draft exemptions to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority. While Israel's economy has remained on solid footing, Netanyahu's government has run up a huge deficit that could result in steep budget cuts in the coming months.
Only one major contender, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has campaigned on a platform centered on the need to restart peace talks and reach a deal with the Palestinians. Her new Movement party was expected to emerge as a midsize faction.
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, for everyone who is worried about justice and Israel's isolation," she said
In the weeks running up to Tuesday's vote, opinion polls have universally forecast Netanyahu's Likud-Yisrael Beitenu emerging as the largest single bloc, controlling roughly one-quarter of parliament's 120 seats and in a strong position to form a new majority coalition. Along with other nationalist and religious parties that traditionally support him, Netanyahu is expected to be able to easily secure a majority of more than 61 seats.
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 such a shocking result, the prime minister could end up being Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich, a former radio journalist who once backed Israel's Communist party. Yachimovich, campaigning on a promise to narrow the gap between rich and poor, has already said she will not sit in a Netanyahu government. But such an outcome appeared unlikely.
In all, 32 parties were running for representation in parliament. 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. EST, 2000 GMT), with exit poll results available immediately and official results trickling in throughout the night.
In a modern-day twist, many Israelis advertised their voting choice by photographing their completed ballot and uploading it to Facebook.
If victorious, Netanyahu is expected to explore reaching across the aisle to bring in at least one of the more centrist parties opposing him, both to reduce his reliance on the hard-liners and to present a more palatable face to the outside world.
But it remains unclear whether he would be able to do so, since it would require concessions on key issues, either economically or diplomatically, that would alienate his core supporters.
One potential centrist partner would be political newcomer Yair Lapid, a former TV talk show host, who has gained popularity by taking aim at the preferential treatment given to the ultra-Orthodox. Lapid has said, however, he will not be a "fig leaf" for an extremist government.
In any case, 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.
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. Bennett's party has siphoned off many Netanyahu supporters who believe the prime minister has grown soft.
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.
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.
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. Tehran denies it is seeking to develop atomic weapons as alleged by Israel, the U.S. and allies.
But internationally, he has repeatedly clashed with his 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.
The Palestinians claim both areas, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, as part of their future state and refuse to negotiate while settlement construction takes place.
Netanyahu has said talks should resume without preconditions. The continued construction, along with Netanyahu's insistence that Israel retain all of east Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank, has led the Palestinians to conclude it is futile to even negotiate.
The international community has shown increasing impatience with Netanyahu. In November, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favor of establishing a Palestinian state in all of the territories captured by Israel in 1967 - the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
The newly re-elected President Barack Obama has had a rocky relationship with Netanyahu and the two men could find themselves on a collision course in their new terms.
In London Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Obama must now make the Middle East peace process his top priority, warning "we are approaching the last chance to bring about such a solution."
Critics warn that Israelis are ignoring the issue at their peril. First, signs are growing that the current lull in violence may be temporary - both because the Palestinian street is getting frustrated and because Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian Authority may cease the security cooperation that even Israeli officials have credited with the halt in fighting.
Beyond that, a persistent chorus warns that the status quo is ultimately self-defeating for Israel because the default outcome is a single entity in the Holy Land - comprising Israel and all the areas it seized in the 1967 war. Based on current birthrates, most experts believe that Arabs would soon be the majority.
Palestinian officials say that Abbas has repeatedly warned Israeli visitors in recent months that Israel could end up like an "apartheid-style" state with a Jewish minority ruling over a disenfranchised Arab majority. At that point, the Arabs would turn their struggle away from independence and instead seek equality in a single state.
The rival Hamas government in Gaza condemned Netanyahu.
"It's clear that the election trends are moving from an extremist government toward more extreme government, which requires us as Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims to draw a strategy to confront the Zionist rising extremism," Hamas' prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh said.