Israelis go to polls in crucial election

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and wife Sara vote in Jerusalem.
Israelis braved pouring rain and strong winds Tuesday to cast ballots in an election that will pick not just the next prime minister but create a new balance of power and lay the groundwork for the next stage of the nation’s future.

If the polls hold true, the right-wing Likud Party may come out ahead, allowing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to once again take the reins of the country. But Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni’s ruling Kadima Party is still in contention after polling a very close second in last week’s final surveys of voters’ intentions. “The majority of the people want a windfall,” Netanyahu said Tuesday while casting his ballot. “They want a change of direction to security, honor and hope, and I think they will vote for this today.” Livni hoped the weather would not dampen turnout. “Rain or no rain, cold or heat, you must come to the polling booth, stand behind the screen and consider whom to vote for,” she said. “This isn’t a storm. Rain just makes you wet.” But with no single party expected to win an overall majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, the party that emerges from Tuesday’s election with the most seats still faces the challenge of building a viable governing coalition. A government needs a controlling majority in the 120-seat Knesset of 61. Neither Likud nor Kadima were expected to reach even half of that figure. That could benefit other parties capable of acting as makeweights, including Yisrael Beiteinu, a nationalistic political movement which has surged into third place in the aftermath of Israel’s military campaign against Hamas militants in Gaza.

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Led by Avigdor Lieberman and drawing support from Israelis who resent the country’s Arab population, Yisrael Beiteinu has been the wild-card in the race as it has worked to sap right-wing support away from Likud. According to the newspaper Ma’ariv, Yisrael Beiteinu could be the “new scale-tipping party” when it comes to coalition building. Lieberman has agitated many Israeli Arabs by questioning and demanding their loyalty and has called for Israel’s boundaries to be redrawn to exclude many of them — a move that would strip them of their citizenship. “The close race between Likud and Kadima has finally injected some long-overdue excitement into the campaign. A few weeks ago, Likud seemed to have victory sewed up. Now it is in real danger of losing out to Kadima,” according to a recent article in Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper. Other parties among the 33 on ballot papers, include the once-dominant and now sliding left of center Labor Party in fourth place, led by current defense minister and former prime minister Ehud Barak, and Shas, an Orthodox religious movement, in fifth, according to polls conducted by three major newspapers Friday. The remainder include the Israeli Arab parties, the left-wing Meretz, the Greens, and Hadash, and smaller right-wing parties called United Torah Judaism, Jewish Home, and National Union. Both Netanyahu and Livni have promised to form broad-based coalitions, most likely with Barak continuing to serve as defense minister, according to CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider. But he said a Netanyahu victory would probably mean a different mood in Israel, with the government indulging in more forceful rhetoric and taking a tougher stance in its external relations with Arab countries, Europe and the Obama administration, which has made the Middle Eastern peace process a foreign policy priority. A Livni victory would mean greater continuity with the policies of her Kadima predecessors, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.

“The difference is mainly one of mood and rhetoric. But mood and rhetoric could be a crucial difference,” Schneider said. About 5.2 million people are eligible to vote until 10 p.m. (3 p.m. ET), the daily newspaper Haaretz said.Voter turnout in the last election in 2006 was 63.2 percent, the lowest in Israel’s history, the newspaper said.