divided Israel's crucial vote

Deeply divided and foul of mood, Israelis are headed toward what seems like a referendum on their long-serving prime minister, the hard-line Benjamin Netanyahu.

But with so many of them having despaired of peace talks with the Palestinians, the focus is mostly on Netanyahu's personality, his expense scandals and the soaring cost of living.

And because no candidate is likely to win big in the wild jumble of Israel's political landscape, the outcome of Tuesday's election could well be a joint government between Netanyahu and his moderate challenger Isaac Herzog.

When he called the early election in November, Netanyahu seemed a shoo-in, but he is extraordinarily divisive at home, where he has been prime minister for the past six years, and for nine in all.

Polls show his nationalist Likud Party running slightly behind Herzog's Labor Party, rebranded the Zionist Union. There are scenarios in which Herzog becomes prime minister. He wants to end occupation of lands captured in the 1967 war.

The country is fragmented — and that's reflected in parliament under the proportional representation system.

Combined, the two big parties get less than half the vote. There's a nationalist party for Russian speakers, another for secular liberals and two for the middle class. A united list represents the 20 percent of citizens who are Arabs. There are four religious parties.

The schisms are real, reflecting a society so diverse that at times it seems to be flying apart. A TV debate among main candidates other than Netanyahu and Herzog degenerated into shouted charges of fascism, criminality and treason.

Power has coalesced into rival leftist and rightist blocs: Arab parties aligned with the dovish left, and the religious with the nationalistic right. If either wins 61 seats combined, its main party governs.

The winning bloc often rules in alliance with parts of the other bloc. Such coalitions widen the base and win points for inclusiveness. They can also be paralyzed by disagreement and tend to collapse of their internal contradictions — as Netanyahu's did four months ago.

Associated Press