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Not a sure thing

Yifat Segev, like many Israelis, said she was undecided until she stepped into the polling booth and noted the lack of excitement that has characterized previous races. In the end, she chose centrist newcomer Yair Lapid, 31, over Mr. Netanyahu, known by his nickname Bibi.

“I figured Bibi’s going to be prime minister anyway, so I might as well give some power to Lapid,” said the mother of three from the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion.

Mr. Netanyahu is widely seen, even by some opponents, as the man best suited to lead the country at a delicate time.

Throughout the campaign, he maintained a lead in the polls with a message that the country needs a tough-minded and experienced leader to face down dangers, including the Iranian nuclear program, potentially loose chemical weapons in Syria and the rise of fundamentalist Islam in Egypt and other Arab countries amid the Arab Spring.

Election officials reported relatively high turnout compared to previous years, boosted by sunny, springlike weather. A heavy turnout could favor Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents, whose voters tend to have a lower participation rate than the highly motivated hard-liners.

Mr. Netanyahu was smiling when he arrived early at a heavily secured polling station in Jerusalem with his wife, Sara, and two sons, both first-time voters.

Many opponents yielded the security issue to Mr. Netanyahu and instead campaigned on economic concerns, such as the high cost of living and the government’s much-maligned practice of giving generous handouts and draft exemptions to ultra-Orthodox Jews.

While Israel’s economy has remained on solid footing, Mr. Netanyahu’s government has run up a huge deficit that could force steep budget cuts in coming months.

Only one major contender, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, campaigned on a platform centered on the need for peace with Palestinians. Her new Movement party was expected to emerge as a midsize faction.

Ms. Livni implored voters to think about the “big decisions” at hand.

“The vote I have cast includes the hopes of all the people who don’t want four more years of Netanyahu and this government,” she said.

A Netanyahu government

In the run-up to the election, opinion polls universally forecast Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance emerging as the largest single bloc.

Should the right-wing and religious parties fail to muster a majority, there will be a mad scramble on the center-left to try to form a coalition on their own.

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