JERUSALEM— As Israel prepares for national elections Tuesday, public opinion surveys indicate that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's center-right Likud Party and its partner, the right-wing Israel Our Home party, are likely to win enough votes to form the next government. Opinion polls also show recent gains by center-left and far-right parties, however, could affect the outcome.
In the final days of the nation's election campaign, candidates criss-crossed the country appealing for votes.
The incumbent, Netanyahu, campaigned on the stability of his previous government, his influence among world leaders and his opposition to Iran's suspected nuclear weapons program.
He said Israel has invested billions of dollars in getting stronger in order to ensure security for its citizens.
Facing myriad challenges
Netanyahu made the pledge in the face of growing Palestinian frustration over the stalled Middle East peace talks and Israeli concerns over the rise of Islamist leaders from the political upheaval in the Arab world.
Five-and-one-half-million voters are registered to cast ballots Tuesday at about 10,000 polling stations across the country.
Thirty-four parties are fielding candidates for the 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament. But less than half are expected to receive the minimum two percent of the total vote needed to qualify for a seat in the body.
The prime minister's Likud party is running on a joint list with the secular-nationalist party, called Israel Beiteinu, or Israel Our Home.
Bayit Yehudi pushes ahead
But the religious-nationalist party, called Jewish Home - or Bayit Yehudi, has been gaining in the polls recently. Jewish Home opposes any Palestinian state west of the Jordan River.
Both of these nationalist parties joined with Likud and several ultra-religious parties to form the previous government.
Hebrew University Political Science Professor Avraham Diskin said Netanyahu would like to form a new government that depends less on the right-wing.
“I am quite sure that Netanyahu will be interested in having centrist and even left-wing parties in his coalition. That's the way he behaved during the outgoing Knesset,” said Diskin.
Focus on economy, social issues
During the election campaign, center-left parties in the opposition have focused primarily on social issues, the high cost of living, and the gap between rich and poor.
The leader of the Labor party, Shelly Yachimovich, recently visited Jerusalem's main outdoor market. She said she would only join a government that promotes social justice.
The Kadima party, which governed prior to the outgoing Netanyahu government, has splintered. According to polls, it probably will win only a handful of seats. Two new parties, the Movement party and the “There is a Future” party, are said to be interested in joining a Netanyahu coalition if certain conditions are met.
Diskin said a major issue that rarely has been discussed in the campaign is the stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.
“In other countries it's really the economy and social issues. It [these issues] is important in Israel and it caused huge rallies in 2011. But still, I believe the most important issue is the Arab-Israeli conflict,” said Diskin.
Israeli columnist Danny Rubinstein said forming a coalition with the center-left might lead Netanyahu to adopt more moderate policies toward the Palestinians.
“He [Netanyahu] has to pay something to the right wing, to the extreme right. But when it will come to his new coalition, he will prefer not to do it, not to provoke the Palestinians, not to provoke the Arab world and, most of all, not to provoke America,” said Rubinstein.
Camil Fuchs, a pollster with the University of Tel Aviv, said if opposition parties make enough gains in the elections, Netanyahu could choose to form a coalition with them.
“However, if that would bring him a relatively shaky coalition, then he may continue to opt for the right wing,” he said.
Fuchs noted that although the Netanyahu alliance is leading in the polls, there is a chance that a late shift in voter preferences could affect the outcome of the election.
The Israeli government's growing budget deficit was a major factor in calling the early elections, but candidates largely ignored the issue during the campaign.
Analysts say reducing the deficit will require major spending cuts and probably higher taxes. As a result, they say the budget is likely to figure prominently in the negotiations to form the next Israeli government.