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Israelis head to polls as shift to right is expected

TEL AVIV — Israelis headed to the polls Tuesday in an election that was expected to give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a third term in office and mark a shift to the political right.

More than 5.6 million Israeli are eligible to vote, and results are expected Wednesday morning.

Exit polls showed 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. 

The vote is expected to be followed by talks between different political parties to form a coalition government since no single party is likely to get an outright majority of the 120 seats in the Knesset.

Netanyahu’s Likud party is running with the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, and opinion polls have showed a surge in support for the far-right Jewish Home party, Reuters reported.

Several Israeli Arabs and Palestinians claimed Tuesday that Israel was moving toward “fascism and racism” and said that hope for the creation of Palestinian nation as part of the proposed two-state solution to the Mideast crisis was fading.

In Tel Aviv, however, voter Ari Abacsis, in his late 20s, said Netanyahu was a proven leader.

“I think Netanyahu did it in the past and he did it quiet well. Nobody is perfect, but Netanyahu fits the requirements,” he said.

“He did some good things. He brought back Gilad Shalit [the Israeli soldier held for years in Gaza]. We remember him for that and for a lot of other things,” he added. “All the others didn't prove themselves. He proves himself. I think we don't know what is happening behind the scenes.”

Young people have 'lost hope'

Yaffa Braverman, 58, an art gallery owner in Tel Aviv, criticized the number of small parties in Israeli politics.

“The problem is the system. We need more big parties that are capable of making important decisions, and the way that we'll do it again is based on small parties and everyone fighting for his own chair,” she said. “I think that's why the young generation has lost hope.”

Avi Shai, 35, financial adviser also from Tel Aviv, said he hoped Netanyahu would develop better relations with the United States and move to the left.

“I don't see any resolution coming because it's a different situation we're in," he said. "A lot of things can happen in the near and far future. Everything is liquid here in the Middle East. It doesn't matter which prime minister is elected -- a lot of things can happen."

“I hope that Prime Minister Netanyahu would be more in the left wing and would have better agreement with Obama, which is not the case right now,” he added.

Palestinians living in Israel expressed a similar lack of hope, but in much stronger terms.

Hana Hurani, 34, an engineer from Eilaboun in the north and an activist in the National Democratic Assembly, said Israel’s politics were headed toward “fascism and racism.”

“We, the Arabs, should stress our national identity and our unity as Arabs. Election day is a day on which Arabs try to represent themselves, and after that we go back to a racist reality,” he said.

“On the Palestinian issue, I expect there to be a stalemate and as there will be more settlement expansion, we will witness the final burial of the two-state solution on which there is an international consensus,” he added.

'Indifference is fatal'

Hurani said Israeli Arabs should “be more active” politically: “Indifference is fatal. … Unfortunately, ignorance and abstention from voting is one of our enemies."

Nijmeh Ali, 30, a political science Ph.D. candidate at the Hebrew University and a lecturer at Al Quds University in Jerusalem, said it was clear from opinion polls that the next government would be right-wing.

“The Palestinian street is boiling, and it will explode at one point against the existing occupation,” he said.

“There is racism and discrimination against the Arabs in Israel, and this will not change since we are a defect in the Zionist project, whether we demand our social or political rights. The legitimization of racism will increase,” he added.

Mustafa Barghuti, 55, a member of the Palestinian National initiative in Ramallah on the West Bank, said most Israelis were voting for Jewish settlements and an “apartheid system at the expense of peace and a two-state solution.”

“It looks like there is no peace camp in Israel,” he added.

Fawzi Barhum, a spokesman for the Hamas movement in Gaza, said he expected that Israel would elect the “most extreme and racist government to lead Israel.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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