JERUSALEM (AP) — With large numbers of Israelis expected to sit out next week's election, centrist activists have launched a last-ditch appeal to get out the vote, hoping to defy what appears to be a guaranteed victory for a hard-line bloc led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
This grassroots effort could be the moderate camp's only chance. Moderate, secular voters tend to turn out in smaller numbers than ideologically motivated hard-liners. Reversing this trend, experts say, is the surest way to take on the government's handling of major issues like stalled peacemaking with the Palestinians, Iran's nuclear program and a troubled economy.
Polls published in Israeli newspapers over the weekend projected Netanyahu and his traditional right-wing and religious allies winning between 64 and 71 seats, enough to secure a majority in the 120-member parliament, compared to 49 to 56 for centrist and Arab parties.
Pollster Camil Fuchs says those numbers reflect current trends. "But a four to five percentage point change in turnout could change things," he said.
The get-out-the vote campaigners, including television personalities and local celebrities, present their efforts as non-partisan, but many are perceived to be aligned with Netanyahu's opponents.
Netanyahu's opponents say the stakes are especially high in the current election. Critics point to the deadlock in peace efforts with the Palestinians, his repeated run-ins with President Barack Obama and Iran's suspect nuclear program. Without a strong alliance with the U.S., they say, it would be difficult to halt the Iranians or rally international support for Israel's positions toward the Palestinians.
Netanyahu's Likud Party has fielded an especially hawkish slate of candidates who reject concessions to the Palestinians. The rise of "Jewish Home," a pro-settler party that could play a major role in the next coalition government, could further affect peace efforts. Jewish Home's leader, Naftali Bennett, and many inside Likud have advocated annexing parts of the West Bank.
Reflecting his hawkish line Monday, Netanyahu told Israel's Channel 2 TV that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas does not want to negotiate. "We don't have to say that we don't have a future here because Abu Mazen doesn't want to negotiate with us," Netanyahu said, referring to Abbas by his nickname. Abbas blames Israel for a four-year stalemate in peace talks.
The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, for their hoped-for state. Israeli moderates warn that Israel's continued control of these territories and their millions of Palestinian residents threaten Israel's status as a Jewish democracy.
Despite the pressing issues, turnout in recent elections has been just over 60 percent. Fuchs said turnout among supporters of Netanyahu and his allies is generally higher than among the rest of the population.
According to pollsters, turnout is especially low among several key groups — political moderates, people under 30 and Israeli Arabs. These constituencies all tend to favor Netanyahu's opponents.