|Israeli right-wingers set to prevail in poll
Israelis vote today in a general election expected to return Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power at the head of a government of hardline right-wing and religious parties.
The ballot to choose Israel's 19th parliament is likely to usher in a government that will swing further to the right, undermining the chances of a peace deal with the Palestinians and raising the prospect of greater diplomatic isolation for Israel, AFP reports.
Those elected will face key diplomatic and foreign policy questions, including Iran's nuclear program, which much of the world believes is a cover for a weapons drive, and pressure to revive peace talks with the Palestinians.
No less pressing are the domestic challenges, including a major budget crisis and looming austerity cuts, which are likely to exacerbate already widespread discontent over spiralling prices.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that Netanyahu's rightwing Likud party, running on a joint list with the hardline secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, is well ahead of its rivals.
But as the day of reckoning neared, the numbers showed falling support for Likud-Beitenu, which is now seen taking 32 seats – 10 fewer than it currently holds –
although the center-left Labour party, its closest contender, is following a distant second with 17.
Final polls late last week had showed the right-wing-religious bloc taking between 61 and 67 seats, compared with 53 to 57 for the center-left and Arab parties.
In a largely uneventful campaign, the surprise element has been Naftali Bennett, the young, charismatic new leader of the far-right nationalist religious Jewish Home who took over the party in November and is a rising star for the settler lobby.
The party, which firmly opposes a Palestinian state and won just three seats in 2009, is on course to win 15, making it the second faction in parliament and a likely partner in any future coalition government.
Bennett's explosion onto the political scene has spooked Netanyahu, pundits say, with the premier pushing hard to stem the flow of right-wing votes to Jewish Home by burnishing his own credentials as a defender of Israeli settlement in the occupied territories.
Some 5.65 million Israelis are eligible to vote.
Voters will be able to cast ballots at 10,132 polling stations.