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Israelis expected to return Benjamin Netanyahu to office

By Josef Federman

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 22 2013 3:16 p.m. MST

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his ballot together with his wife Sara, left and sons Yair and Avner, background left, at a polling station in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013. Israelis headed to polling stations Tuesday to cast votes in a parliamentary election expected to return Netanyahu to office despite years of stalled peacemaking with the Palestinians and mounting economic troubles.

Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Israelis voted Tuesday in an election expected to keep hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the helm of government for a third term despite his rocky record: No peace process with Palestinians, growing diplomatic isolation and signs of economic trouble ahead.

The balloting will likely leave Netanyahu, 63, leading an even more hawkish coalition than the current one — dominated by hard-liners opposed to concessions that could bring Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Such a result would probably keep peace efforts deadlocked and put Israel on a path to further run-ins with key ally Washington.

President Barack Obama has had a turbulent relationship with Netanyahu, and the two leaders could find themselves on a collision course in their new terms.

The Obama administration said Tuesday that regardless of the results of the election, the U.S. approach to the conflict would not change.

"We will continue to make clear that only through direct negotiations can the Palestinians and the Israelis ... achieve the peace they both deserve," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. He said the complexity of the conflict, not Obama's relationship with the Israeli leader, was the main impediment.

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged Obama to now make the Middle East peace process his top priority.

"We are approaching the last chance to bring about such a solution," Hague warned.

For the first time in decades, the conflict with the Palestinians was not the defining issue in the election campaign after many Israelis came to believe a peace deal is impossible.

That deprived Netanyahu's more moderate opponents of their traditional focus for elections and the fractured center-left camp failed to unite behind a viable alternative candidate, practically ensuring another Netanyahu victory.

Yifat Segev, like many Israelis, said she was undecided until she stepped into the polling booth and noted the lack of excitement that has characterized previous races. In the end, she chose centrist newcomer Yair Lapid over Netanyahu, known by his nickname, Bibi.

"I figured Bibi's going to be prime minister anyway, so I might as well give some power to Lapid," said the 31-year-old mother of three from the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion.

Netanyahu is widely seen, even by some opponents, as the man best suited to lead the country at a delicate time.

He has maintained a lead with a message that the country needs a tough-minded and experienced leader to face down dangers including the Iranian nuclear program, potentially loose chemical weapons in Syria and the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Egypt and other Arab countries after the Arab Spring.

There was still room for a surprise outcome. Election officials reported relatively high turnout compared to previous years, boosted by sunny, spring-like weather. A heavy turnout could favor Netanyahu's opponents, whose voters tend to have a lower participation rate than the highly motivated hard-liners. In addition, opinion polls have often been wrong in past elections.

Just two hours before polls closed, Netanyahu implored his supporters of his Likud Party to go out and vote.

"The Likud rule is in danger, I ask you to leave everything and go out now and vote," Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page. "It is very important to ensure the future of the state of Israel."

Netanyahu was smiling when he arrived early Tuesday at a heavily secured polling station in Jerusalem with his wife, Sara, and two sons, both first-time voters.

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