Exit polls suggest Netanyahu victory

Published Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Updated 11:21pm: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerged the bruised winner of Tuesday’s election, with his hawkish bloc unexpectedly losing ground to center-left challengers, exit polls showed.

They suggested the Israeli leader's Likud party, yoked with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu group, would still be the biggest bloc in the 120-member assembly with 31 seats, 11 fewer than the 42 they held in the previous parliament.

If the exit polls compiled by three Israeli television channels prove correct, Netanyahu would be on course to secure a third term in office, perhaps leading a hardline coalition that would likely promote the expansion of illegal Jewish settlement on occupied Palestinian land.

But his weakened showing in an election he himself called earlier than necessary could complicate the struggle to forge an alliance with a stable majority in parliament.

The projections showed right-wing parties with a combined strength of 61-62 seats against 58-59 for the centre-left.

But the mood was subdued at his Likud party's election headquarters, with only a couple of hundred party activists and supporters in a venue that could house thousands.

Israelis voted in droves, registering the highest projected turnout since 1999 when Netanyahu, serving his first term as prime minister, was defeated by then-Labor Party leader Ehud Barak.

By 9pm (1900 GMT), an hour before polls closed, the Israeli election committee said turnout was at 70.6 percent.

Early afternoon polls revealed a turnout of about 10 percent for Arab citizens of Israel who comprise about one-fifth of the population, but it later picked up in the evening following calls by Palestinian leaders to vote. About 44 percent had voted in Nazareth by around 7:30pm.

Arab participation in elections has plummeted over the past decade. Seventy-five percent of Palestinian citizens of Israel voted in 1999. Ten years later, numbers shrunk to 54 percent, signalling a growing disillusionment with the Israel’s discriminatory policies towards them.

More than one million Palestinians are eligible to vote in Israeli elections, but decades of structural discrimination over their rights to employment, health care, education and political participation have alienated Arab communities. Palestinians currently hold only 11 of the 120 Knesset seats.

Palestinian member of Knesset Hanin Zuabi, who is up for reelection, called her supporters to go out to vote, “because we do not accept living as strangers or being afraid in our homeland,” she wrote on Facebook.

Full election results are due by Wednesday morning and official ones will be announced on January 30. After that, President Shimon Peres is likely to ask Netanyahu, as leader of the biggest bloc in parliament, to try to form a government.

Netanyahu has traditionally looked to religious, conservative parties for backing and is widely expected to seek out self-made millionaire Naftali Bennett, who heads the Jewish Home party and stole much of the limelight during the campaign.

Bennett has ruled out any peace pact with Palestinians and calls for the further annexation of much of the occupied West Bank.

US-brokered talks collapsed just a month after they started in 2010 following a row over settlement building, and have lain in ruins ever since.

Netanyahu approved the construction of about 11,000 settler homes in December alone, causing further strains to his already notoriously difficult relations with his traditional Western allies.

With his reelection, Netanyahu will likely seek to put Iran back to the top of the global agenda, an issue that has barely registered during the election campaign.

A poll in Haaretz newspaper on Friday found 47 percent of Israelis thought social and economic issues were the most pressing concern, against just 10 percent who cited Iran.

(Reuters, Al-Akhbar)

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