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High turnout in Tel Aviv as Israel votes

Many voters in Israel's commercial capital say they'd be happy to see prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu leave office.
Last modified: 22 Jan 2013 22:01

Tel Aviv, Israel - Unseasonably warm weather seems to have brought Israeli voters to the polls in droves, as people took a break from their BBQs to participate in the political show-down.

The Likud party, led by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is widely expected to retain power, according to polls, but leaks from opposition parties and gossip among the press corps allege that the prime minister might be nervous.

“The rule of Likud is in danger,” Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page. “I ask you to leave everything and go out and vote for Likud [and its alliance partner Yisrael Beiteinu]. This is very important for securing the state of Israel.”

Preliminary exit polls leaked to Al Jazeera by a well-placed Israeli source say that things are going worse than expected for Likud. Yesh Atid, a party focused mostly on domestic issues, is doing better than expected, and the situation is not looking good for the Labour.

Tzipi Livni, leader of the Hatnuah Party, which is considered centrist here, said that Netanyahu is concerned because he believes a change in leadership is possible.

That is probably just political posturing from an opposition figure, but voters in Tel Aviv – which is considered less conservative than other parts of Israel – say they would be happy to see Netanyahu go.

“We want everything to change; we don’t like that the country is becoming so far-right,” Barack Nativ, a graphic designer in Tel Aviv, told Al Jazeera as he left a polling station with his children in tow. He blames the local media and right-wing politicians for scaring Israelis into believing that peace with the Palestinians is impossible.

Central Tel Aviv does not offer a fair snapshot of Israeli society, but rising housing prices and the demise of the peace process worry voters here. By 6pm local time, about 55 percent of the electorate had cast their ballots.

Hila Fishov, a student, is more concerned with the high cost of housing and what she sees as problems with the country’s education system than with a peace deal. She is annoyed that certain religious groups in Israel don’t have to serve in the army, even though most people do.

“The religious should have to do national service, working in hospitals or something,” she said, arguing that taxpayers shouldn’t be funding special religious schools for ultra-Orthodox Jews.

“I like Yair Lapid [a former TV journalist who leads the Yesh Atid party]. He’s a new candidate and I think he can change the economic situation,” Fishov told Al Jazeera. “Too much of our budget is going to pay for the religious and that needs to change.”

Lapid’s focus on domestic issues could lead to an unexpected break-through for the upstart party. He has indicated that he would join a coalition with Likud.

Some analysts believe this would benefit Netanyahu. His other possible coalition partners, including Jewish Home, another fast-rising party, are considered extremist by some of Israel’s allies.

Recently, Barack Obama, the US president, reportedly said privately: “Israel does not know what its best interests are”. Netanyahu has vowed to continue constructing settlements on occupied Palestinian land, angering many in the international community.

Lapid’s party, who is alleged by Israeli pundits to be more centrist when it comes to the construction of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, would be more palpable to Israeli allies, compared with the Jewish Home party and other far-right groups. Jewish Home, which is predicted to win 17 seats in the 120 member Knesset according to some polls, wants Israel to expand settlement construction and opposes the creation of a Palestinian state.

William Hague, the UK foreign minister, said on Tuesday that the two-state solution will become “impossible” if Israel continues building settlements.

Arie Yampuler, a lawyer and activist with the left-wing Hadash party in Tel Aviv, told Al Jazeera that voters should give his group more seats as they are “a symbol of cooperation between Jews and Arabs”.

Born from Israel’s communist party in 1977, Hadash counts on support from Palestinian-Israelis, a group who many fear won’t vote in large numbers as they feel disenfranchised from the Israeli establishment.

“We are optimistic, but worried about voter turnout in the Arab sector,” Alon Hayim, another Hadash activist, told Al Jazeera. With more than two hours of voting left to go, Palestinian-Israeli turnout reached 44 percent in the city of Nazareth, Haaretz newspaper reported.

When asked about his predications for the new coalition government, Hayim said: “It could be a horrible coalition or a not-so-horrible party could win. Unfortunately, I think it will be the first option.”