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Israel Holds National Elections

March 17, 2015

Israelis are voting in national elections in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a strong challenge.

Recent opinion polls ahead of the March 17 parliamentary elections showed Netanyahu's center-right Likud party lagging behind Isaac Herzog's center-left Zionist Union alliance.

In what appeared to be a final pitch for far-right votes, Netanyahu on March 16 said no Palestinian state would arise under his watch if he won a fourth term as prime minister.

If Netanyahu, 65, can stay in power until July 2019, he would become Israel's longest-serving prime minister.

The Zionist Union has pledged to work toward improving relations with the Palestinians and the international community.

During campaigning, Netanyahu also warned against making any deals with Iran over its nuclear program.

Neither side is expected to get more than a quarter of the votes, but opinion polls published last week show the Zionist Union is likely to win the most seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

President Reuven Rivlin urged Israelis to vote in large numbers, telling them 'to take their own fate in their hands.'

Netanyahu, casting his ballot in Jerusalem, acknowledged in brief remarks to reporters that his opponents' lead had widened.

'To prevent the rise to power of a left-wing party, there is only one thing to do -- close the gap,' he said, in a bid to rally religious-nationalist voters to his Likud.

Herzog, the head of Israel's Labor Party, and his running mate, ex-Foreign Minister and peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, have accused Netanyahu of using security scares to distract from social issues like the high cost of living.

'This election is between change and hope or despair and disappointment,' Herzog said after casting his ballot in Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu devoted little attention to the economy during the campaign, while his opponents have pledged to address the growing concerns and narrow the gap between the rich and poor.

Many Israelis complain they can't make ends meet and struggle to buy apartments amid skyrocketing housing prices.

Netanyahu's opponents also say he has endangered Israel's close relationship with the United States.

Washington said his government is undermining U.S.-brokered peace talks with the Palestinians through its persistent expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

Netanyahu further angered President Barack Obama's administration by accepting an invitation from his Republican opponents to speak at the U.S. Congress, where he encouraged opposition to Obama's efforts to forge a historic deal to curb Iran's nuclear program.

Under Israel's electoral system, no party has ever won an outright majority in the Knesset.

Instead, the party with the best chance of forming a coalition -- usually the party with the best election result -- is given the opportunity to do so.

The Zionist Union needs at least 61 seats to put together a coalition, and that would mean attracting support from smaller center-left parties, as well as from the far-left Meretz party.

It would also need the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties, which are expected to win around 13 seats -- the same estimated number as Arab parties, which for the first time have united under one list.

Analysts say that while they are unlikely to join a center-left coalition, the Arab parties could give it tacit support in parliament, which could offer the center-left leverage over Netanyahu.

More than 5.8 million voters can cast their vote between 7 a.m. local time and 10 p.m. in more than 10,000 polling stations nationwide.

Turnout in the first hours of voting was higher than in many previous elections.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Source: http://www.rferl.org/content/israel- parliamentary-elections/26905534.html

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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