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Israelis vote as Netanyahu seeks return to power

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Jerusalem: Israelis were voting Tuesday in their fifth election in less than four years, with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu campaigning for a comeback with help from the rising extreme-right.

The election follows the collapse of the so-called "change" coalition, which united eight disparate parties who succeeded in ousting Netanyahu last year after a record run as prime minister, but ultimately failed to achieve political stability. "I hope we will finish the day with a smile, but it's up to the people," Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption and breach of trust, said after voting.

Caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid party may place second behind Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, urged people to vote "for the future of our country". In a political system where a shift in just one of the 120 Knesset seats up for grabs could cement a ruling coalition -- or lead to further deadlock and possible new elections -- the outcome remains uncertain once more. At a polling station in Tel Aviv, voter Amy Segal aired her frustration. "Each year there's a new election, there's no political stability," the 26-year-old told AFP. "I feel like it doesn't matter who you vote for, nothing will change." Polls close at 10:00 pm (2000 GMT), when Israeli networks will give their first results projections. Given the razor-thin margins in the deeply divided country, turnout will be crucial. It was up this year, 28.4 percent by 12:00 pm, compared with 25.5 in the March 2021 vote, according to the Central Elections Committee.

- 'Coalition of extremists' -

Whoever is tapped to form a government will need support from multiple smaller parties to clinch a 61-seat majority. Extreme-right leader Itamar Ben-Gvir may be key to helping Netanyahu return to power, as his Religious Zionism bloc has gained momentum in recent weeks and could come third in the election.

Ben-Gvir, who wants Israel to annex the entire West Bank, promised a "full right-wing government" led by Netanyahu, after voting near his settlement home. He promised "calm in the streets" if Netanyahu names him a internal security minister, a likely unsettling prospect for Israel's Arab citizens, with Ben-Gvir having faced dozens of charges of hate speech against Arabs. Justice Minister Gideon Saar, a former Likud heavyweight who broke with Netanyahu and now leads his own party, warned Israel risked electing a "coalition of extremists". The vote is being held against a backdrop of soaring violence across Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

At least 29 Palestinians and three Israelis were killed across the two territories in October, according to an AFP tally. The Israeli military said it would shut checkpoints leading to the West Bank and closed the crossing with the blockaded Gaza Strip throughout election day. While many candidates have cited security as a concern, none have campaigned on a platform of reviving moribund peace talks with the Palestinians. - Divisions and despondency - The cost of living has been a hot issue this election as Israelis, having long endured high prices, are feeling the pinch even more amid global economic turmoil linked to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Lapid was the architect of the last coalition, which for the first time brought an independent Arab party into the fold and included others from the right and left. In Tel Aviv, voter Gidi Bar Ilan said the short-lived coalition "demonstrates that we can sit together". "I think that it's not possible to know what will happen... no one thought that a government of change could be formed and in the end that was the case," said the 30-year-old. The unlikely alliance of the last government was made possible after Mansour Abbas pulled his Raam party from a united slate with other Arab-led parties, paving the way for him to join the coalition. Recent months have seen further divisions within the Arab bloc, which is running on three separate lists in a move expected to weaken the minority's representation in parliament. Such a scenario has led to despondency among many Arab-Israelis -- who make up around 20 percent of the population -- potentially denting their turnout.

Faris Mansour, a 54-year-old voter from mainly Arab Al-Tirah in central Israel, said Abbas's time in the coalition had failed. "He tried, but he didn't bring anything. No change, no money," Mansour said, adding that he had voted for the Balad party which rejects participation in Israeli governance. Abbas remained optimistic Tuesday that "this process of cooperation" would continue, yielding "results for the Arab society, and for the Israeli society in general."

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