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Middle East

Israeli election too close to call

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ended his coalition for tactical reasons. But a win in Tuesday's early election is far from a sure thing for his conservatives. Anja Koch and Tania Krämer report from Jerusalem.

"Vote Likud" and other election slogans blare from a loudspeaker next to a main street in Kiryat Gat, a small town in southern Israel. Miri Emkez puts up a few election posters showing a relaxed Benjamin Netanyahu. The young woman is an ardent supporter of the prime minister conservative Likud party.

She can't imagine anyone but Bibi, as Israelis call Netanyahu, as head of government. "Suddenly, people are saying they've had enough, but they have a short-term memory," Emkez says. "Ever since Bibi's been in power, we have had calm and quiet here. There are no more bad terrorist attacks. We've reinstated our determent after the Gaza war. All I want is security for me and my two daughters.

Woman putting up Likud campaign posters

Likud campaigners make a last-ditch effort to convince voters

Scoring with security policy

Security - that's the focus in Netanyahu's campaign. He never tires of warning against the Iranian nuclear agreement currently being negotiated by the West. The prime minister also continues to stoke fears of Hamas, Hezbollah and "Islamic State" terrorists. The message is clear: only Benjamin Netanyahu can protect Israel from outside dangers.

"It's always solely about security - but that's not something that we determine," says Nir Kramer. The 37-year-old is campaigning for the center-left coalition Zionist Camp. He's handing out pamphlets and car flags for the coalition in a Tel Aviv intersection, because he believes that things would move forward with a change of government.

"For us, the economy and social issues are more important," says Kramer.

Israelis battle rising cost of living

Most discussions among Israelis are actually dominated by rising rents and high food prices, fuelled by a recent report by Israel's state comptroller Joseph Shapira.

According to the report, rents have risen by 30 percent over the last five years. The price for real estate has increased even more: a whopping 55 percent. The middle class won't be able to handle this for much longer, experts warn.

"Economic and social policies are the focus this time around," says pollster Rafi Smith. "Israel hasn't seen an election influenced so strongly by these topics for the last 40 years."

The top candidates of the Zionist Camp understand that: Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni promise that, should they win, they would fight for an apartment council that's supposed to work against rising rents. They also want to spend more money on social issues and education. Herzog and Livni would take turns at being prime minister, switching off after two years.

Longing for change

Isaac Herzog talking to people in Jerusalem. (Photo: Tania Krämer/ DW)

Herzog wants to be seen as down-to-earth and in touch with the common man

Herzog presents himself as a man of the people. He has traveled quite a bit over the last few weeks and wants to strengthen his political profile. In a recent town hall-style meeting at a Jerusalem bar, potential voters were able to address questions directly to him. They talked about the high cost of living, but also asked whether Herzog had a plan for the conflict with the Palestinians.

"He is definitely the only one that could replace Bibi and his program convinces me," said Itay Rotem at the end of that night. But many Israelis find Herzog, who works as a lawyer, lacking in charisma - a dilemma for some voters.

"There are many people who aren't happy with Netanyahu anymore, who want a change," says Tamir Sheafer, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "But many don't see how Herzog could lead a country like Israel, either."

"I absolutely cannot tell who will be Israel's next prime minister," admits Rafi Smith - and he's one of Israel's leading pollsters. His Smith Institute regularly asks hundreds of Israelis about how they're planning on voting.

But this time, the results are just too close to make predictions. According to the newest polls, the Zionist Camp is slightly ahead of the Likud party, but many Israelis are still undecided.

Many parties vying for seats in Knesset

On Tuesday, Likud will have to watch out for other parties from the right side of the spectrum. One competitor: former Netanyahu confidant Moshe Kahlon, who's running with his Kulanu party for the first time, or Naftali Bennett's right-national-religious Jewish Home party.

Orthodox Jew seen from behind. (Photo: Tania Krämer/ DW)

The Orthodox Jewish party hopes to be part of the new government

The ultra-Orthodox want to return to government after two years in the opposition. The same goes for Yair Lapid from the Yesh Atid party. He was finance minister until Netanyahu ended the coalition with Lapid's party.

Observers are also eager to see how the new Arab alliance will do. Four Arab parties have joined to form one coalition - which could become the third-strongest power, according to polls.

In the end, the decisive factor will probably be the ability to form a coalition. Likud acts victorious when it comes to this question. "With whom should Herzog form a government? With the Arabs?," asks Likud representative Miri Regev.

Regev has come to Kiryat Gat to campaign, taking almost an hour to tour a shopping mall. She says that a grand coalition would be possible, but only "as a last resort." So Regev hangs on to the hope that Netanyahu will once again succeed at forming a government with the parties from the ride side of the spectrum - with nationalists and the ultra-Orthodox.

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