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Israelis walk past an election campaign billboard of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Givataim, Israel, on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. (Oded Balilty/AP)
Israelis walk past an election campaign billboard of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Givataim, Israel, on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. (Oded Balilty/AP)

Middle East

Likely winners, losers, surprises and problems in the Israeli election Add to ...

Israelis go to the polls Tuesday in the first national election since February, 2009. Some 5.6 million people are eligible to vote, about 20 per cent of them Arab Israelis.

While it has been a foregone conclusion that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be returned to office as head of the merged Likud and Yisrael Beitenu parties’ list of candidates, it remains to be seen how far to the right the new Netanyahu government will be – how open to negotiations for peace, how willing to freeze settlement construction, how accommodating to the country’s ultra-Orthodox Haredim and how willing to tackle a struggling economy.

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All that will be determined in the days following the vote as the prime minister-designate courts the many parties that will be needed to form a majority coalition in the 120-seat Knesset.

Some things have become clear:

The biggest loser

Mr. Netanyahu, while likely to retain the prime minister’s office, has been badly weakened during the course of this campaign. The electoral bloc he formed with the right-wing Yisrael Beitenu party of Avigdor Lieberman was intended to ensure a strong majority within a governing coalition. It appears to have come up short.

The two parties together had 42 seats in the outgoing Knesset. Opinion surveys show they will be lucky to get 35 in the voting. The reduced popular support increases the bargaining power of the parties Mr. Netanyahu will need to form a coalition, as well as the price he would have to pay for their partnership – especially to the Jewish Home party that has eaten away at his support.

The biggest winner

Naftali Bennett – small in stature and large as life, a dot-com millionaire and former elite military commander – has captured the imagination of much of the country in just a few weeks. Polls show his Jewish Home party could win from 14 to 17 seats. Mr. Netanyahu is likely to turn to him first to assemble a coalition.

While the two men share a right-of-centre outlook – Mr. Bennett once served as Mr. Netanyahu’s chief of staff while in opposition – Mr. Bennett’s goal is to take the coalition further right than any government in the country’s history. In Mr. Bennett’s Israel, no Jewish settlement in the West Bank would be removed and no Palestinian state will ever come into being.

The biggest question

Will Mr. Netanyahu first ask Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party or the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to join a coalition? Both parties are expected to win about 12 seats.

The choice will determine a great deal about the new government. Should Mr. Netanyahu approach Shas first, it will indicate he is not prepared to confront the religious community over the one issue that has vexed the electorate more than any other: the ability of young Haredi men to avoid military service so they may study for years in yeshivas.

Mr. Lapid, a television journalist-turned-politician, has said he will not participate in the coalition if Shas is approached first. That would deprive Mr. Netanyahu of the best opportunity he may have of broadening his coalition to include a centrist party. And if Mr. Netanyahu instead goes first to Mr. Lapid, he will have to agree to tackle the issue of Haredi conscription, the biggest single plank in the Yesh Atid platform. That may mean that Shas, the Sephardi Orthodox party, will be left out in the cold.

The historic precedent

In 2003, Ariel Sharon formed a government similar to the one Mr. Netanyahu is considering. It included Mr. Sharon’s Likud party, Mr. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, the National Religious Party (forerunner of Mr. Bennett’s Jewish Home) and a party led by another Lapid, Tommy, the father of Yair Lapid. The older Lapid had even greater contempt for the Haredim than his son.

That 2003 coalition was blown up when Mr. Sharon decided to evacuate Israeli troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. His own party rebelled and Mr. Sharon founded the Kadima party.

The biggest surprise

Shelly Yachimovich has resurrected the Labour party through relentless campaigning and a decision not to raise the topic of the peace process with the Palestinians in the campaign. The once-mighty party, reduced to half a dozen seats just two years ago, may capture three times as many seats in a remarkable turnaround.

The biggest disappointment

For many it will be that, once again, a declining number of Arab Israelis will vote. Fewer than half of those eligible cast ballots in 2009. Many Arab voters conclude that their votes will not make a difference in the outcome.

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