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All signs point to a Netanyahu victory

Israelis voted yesterday in an election likely to return prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as head of a right-wing coalition.

JERUSALEM // Israelis voted yesterday in an election likely to return prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as head of a right-wing coalition that will face the challenges of peacemaking with the Palestinians and Iran's nuclear programme.

After a slow start, the pace of voting picked up, with long queues outside some polling stations in Jerusalem. By noon, the central elections committee said 26.7 per cent of voters had cast ballots.

Mr Netanyahu voted early with his wife Sara and their two sons in the upscale Rehavia neighbourhood of Jerusalem. He called on voters to back the joint list of his right-wing Likud party and the secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu faction of the former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

"Likud-Beitenu represents all the people. The stronger Likud-Beitenu is, the easier it will be to lead Israel successfully," he said.

Polling ahead of the vote has consistently projected an easy win for the Likud-Beitenu list, and Mr Netanyahu is expected to preside over a right-wing government that will be less likely to achieve a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians and could increase Israel's diplomatic isolation.

The government will face key diplomatic and foreign policy questions, including Iran's nuclear programme, which much of the world believes masks a weapons drive, and a Middle East changed by the Arab uprisings.

But domestic challenges will be no less pressing, with a major budget crisis and austerity cuts on the horizon, even as Israelis express widespread discontent over spiralling prices.

Polls show Likud-Beitenu winning about 32 seats, down about 10 from their present standing in the 120-seat Knesset. The centre-left Labour party is projected to win about 17 seats. Its chief, Shelly Yachimovich, is expected to become leader of the opposition after pledging she would not join a Netanyahu government.

The campaign's big surprise has been Naftali Bennett, the young, charismatic leader of the hardline national religious Jewish Home.

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