OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israelis vote Tuesday for the first time since revolutions convulsed their Arab neighbors, in elections expected to push the Jewish state even further to the right, away from peace with Palestinians and toward greater confrontation with Iran.
After a lackluster campaign, the polls could be on course to give Israel the most hard-line government in its history, deepening its international isolation and potentially putting strains on its relations with Washington.
Polls – though notoriously inaccurate in the past – predict right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be re-elected, but with a parliamentary majority forecast to shrink, in part because of the rise of a far-right group even more uncompromising than his own ultranationalist allies.
The elections find Israel largely focusing inward at a time when its region is changing faster than ever.
The Arab uprisings of the past two years have barely figured in the campaign, and even the center-left Labor Party, once the pioneer of talks with the Palestinians, has avoided focusing on a peace process in deep freeze since 2010.
Netanyahu made an election-eve appeal Monday to wavering supporters to “come home,” showing concern over the forecast far-right surge that could see millionaire Naftali Bennett’s upstart Jewish Home party place third.
At a final campaign appearance in Jerusalem, Netanyahu voiced confidence that his traditional backers would not abandon him, and repeated his stump pledges to keep Israel safe and build Jewish settlements over international opposition.
“I have no doubt that many, many people will decide at the last minute to come home to Likud-Yisrael Beitenu,” he said.
“I have a good feeling. And at the last minute, I appeal to each and every citizen going to the ballot box: ‘Decide for whom you are going to vote – for a divided and weak Israel or for a united and strong Israel and a large governing party?’”
Bennett, a charismatic former settler leader, advocates annexing parts of the West Bank, a position even to the right of Netanyahu, who still says he supports an eventual Palestinian state on some of the land Israel occupied in the1967 war. Netanyahu’s Likud entered the campaign in an electoral alliance with the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, meant to shore up his right flank. But the final polls released last week show his list losing 10 seats in the 120-seat Knesset and Jewish Home winning as many as 14.
The polls predict Likud/Yisrael Beitenu and its religious and right wing coalition partners securing a majority of just three seats. Bennett, a former Netanyahu aide, has made no secret that he wants to join Likud/Yisrael Beitenu in a ruling coalition, pulling it even further to the right. He has even put Netanyahu’s face on his party’s campaign posters.
A relatively weak showing would make Netanyahu more susceptible to the demands of potential coalition partners, including Bennett.