by Gur Solomon
JERUSALEM, Jan. 22 (Xinhua) -- Exiting a polling station at a high school in Gilo, a neighborhood in southwestern Jerusalem, Alice Kuperman seems content with having cast her vote for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud, running on a joint ticket with the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party.
"Netanyahu is unshakeable and resolute, the only one who can really defend us in the face of great perils in the coming years," Kuperman, a 47-year-old homemaker and mother of three, said Tuesday as Israeli voters went to the polls for general elections that public opinion polls predict will reinstall Netanyahu for a third term.
With a population of about 60,000, Gilo, built on land in the West Bank captured from Jordan in the 1967 war and later annexed, has been a focal point of friction between Israel and much of the international community, which largely considers it an illegal settlement. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has singled out the community, as well as the nearby neighborhood of Har Homa, as a stumbling block to peacemaking efforts.
Such sentiments have made Gilo and other contested West Bank settlements natural right-wing bastions. However, this time around, Kuperman's unwavering support for Netanyahu is no longer a foregone conclusion -- neither in Gilo nor elsewhere.
While recent public opinion polls predict the Likud-Beiteinu list winning up to 37 parliamentary seats and a rightist-religious block securing more than 70 seats in total, other surveys have shown between 14 to 18 percent of voters still wavering over whom they want to see in the 120-member unicameral legislature.
Brief interviews with voters in Gilo, whose residents represent a cross-section of Israeli society, shattered expectations, disclosing sentiments of growing resentment over long-neglected social and economic issues.
"I hate labels. The fact that I live here doesn't automatically make me a Likud sympathizer," said Daniel, 22, a communications student. "Netanyahu's settlement policies may be putting us in a tough position vis-a-vis the world. Some say that we are heading for another war. That's major stuff, but I'm losing sleep over how to pay rent and the rising prices of basic foodstuffs. That's why I'm voting for (Labor leader) Shelly Yacimovich."
Talish Razi, 26, who manages a customer service call center, cast her ballot for Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home), a new ultra-nationalist party forecasted to win between 12 to 14 mandates and become a major partner in a Likud-led coalition government.
Its founder, Naftali Bennett, former special forces officer and multi-millionaire high-tech entrepreneur, seeks to annex more than half of the West Bank and grant Palestinians autonomy.
"Bennett is a new political force, but ultimately it's the United States that determines our security and political future, not Israel itself. Bennet also brings along a clear social and economic message," said Razi, a religiously observant woman. "He has called for equalizing the burden of military service by drafting the ultra-Orthodox, aims to lower taxes and narrow economic gaps."
Like many Israelis disgruntled by the sweeping exemptions from compulsory military draft given to the country's religious students, Yehoshua Bollag, a social worker who emigrated to Israel from Switzerland as a teenager, is seeking to empower a party list that has placed the issue at the top of its agenda.
He has voted for Am Ehad (One People), led by rabbi Haim Amsalem, former senior member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party who last year distanced himself from the party to form a political list that advocates drafting Shas' followers and integrating them into the work force.
"The rabbi carries a message that ascends beyond sectoral politics," said Bollag. "He is pushing forward an agenda that seeks to integrate them into a Zionistic State of Israel both socially and economically."
Bollag's wife, Elisheva, participated in several mass protests that in the summer of 2011 saw hundreds of thousands of Israelis taking to the streets to protest the rising costs of living.
"The Labor party is for me. I hope that Shelly Yacimovich will deliver good on her promises," she said.
Avraham Ganani, 82, retired civil servant, inserted a blank, or a "white slip," in the ballot box, an expression of lack of trust in the political establishment in its entirety.
As a self-declared "Likudnik" who has voted for the ruling party for decades, Ganani expressed disappointment over the recent merger between "his" party and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu.
"I didn't have a choice. He (Netanyahu) hooked up with someone (Liberman) that I didn't want in the government. I think that he is a criminal," said Ganani, referring to Lieberman's embroilment in a corruption affair that recently forced him to resign the post of foreign minister.
Yitzhak Nahum, owner of a garage, hinges his hopes on Tzipi Livni's centrist Hatnua, a staunch opponent of Likud.
"I expect peace with the Palestinians, and that won't happen with a right-wing government. Am I optimistic about this country's future? Not really," he said.