JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israelis vote on Tuesday for the first time since revolutions convulsed their Arab neighbors, in an election expected to push the Jewish state even further to the right, away from peace with Palestinians and towards greater confrontation with Iran.
After a lackluster campaign, the election could be on course to give Israel the most hardline 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 to 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 election finds Israel largely focusing inward at a time when its region is changing faster than ever.
The Arab revolts of the past two years have barely figured in the campaign, and even the center-left Labour Party, once pioneers of talks with the Palestinians, has avoided focusing on a peace process in deep freeze since 2010.
Netanyahu made an election-eve appeal on 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 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 captured in a 1967 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.
Netanyahu’s relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama has been frosty.
Washington disagrees with his building settlements in occupied territory - which most countries consider illegal but Netanyahu says is a Jewish right derived from the bible - and on the urgency of possible military action against Iran.
During the campaign, parties have avoided discussing the sensitive question of whether and when to use military force against Iran. Netanyahu has said preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons would remain his priority.
Tehran denies seeking atomic arms. The United States and European countries share Israel’s view that Iran has nuclear military ambitions that must be halted, but say sanctions and diplomacy are the best ways to persuade Tehran to stop.
A relatively weak showing would make Netanyahu more susceptible to the demands of potential coalition partners, including Bennett.
Visiting Jerusalem’s Western Wall shrine on Monday, Bennett said he prayed “to restore Israel’s Jewish soul”.
“Today we are embarking on a wonderful journey to unite all the parts of Israel: religious and secular and haredi (ultra-Orthodox), all of us together,” he told reporters.
Though support for center-left parties has edged higher, their leaders failed to present a united front. Labour is led by Shelly Yachimovich, a former journalist who focuses on economic and social issues and has ruled out joining a Netanyahu-led cabinet. Labour is forecast to place second with about 18 seats.
Other center-left parties, while hoping their bloc can win a majority, have said they could join a Netanyahu-led government, which might reduce its rightward tilt.
Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and negotiator with the Palestinians, has promised to work for a regional peace deal. Her Hatnuah party is expected to win fewer than 10 seats.
In the final hours of the campaign, Netanyahu also took new aim at pocketbook issues, after being rocked by figures last week that showed Israel’s budget deficit last year was, at 4.2 percent of gross domestic product, double the original estimate.
He announced he would appoint a popular minister to oversee state land allocation with the aim of lowering housing prices.
Polling stations open at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) on Tuesday and close at 10 p.m.. Immediately after voting ends, Israeli media release exit polls, with official results due the next morning and party leaders already beginning informal coalition talks.
No one party has ever won a parliamentary majority in Israel, and its president traditionally asks the leader of the biggest bloc to try to form a governing coalition.