TEL AVIV  - Israelis voted on Tuesday in an election seen returning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power with a rightwing coalition charged with tackling the key issues of peace talks and Iran's nuclear drive. Long queues formed outside several polling stations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv after a slow start, with turnout standing 55.5 percent four hours before polls were to close at 2000 GMT, according to the Central Elections Committee. Throughout the day, participation figures have been consistently higher than in the two previous elections in 2006 and 2009.

Polling ahead of the vote had projected an easy win for the joint list fusing Netanyahu's Likud with the hardline nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, although they are only expected to win about 32 mandates, just over a quarter of the 120 seats in parliament. The vote is likely to usher in a more rightwing government which will be less inclined to seek a peace deal with the Palestinians and could increase Israel's diplomatic isolation, analysts say. "The stronger Likud-Beitenu is, the easier it will be to lead Israel successfully," said Netanyahu after voting in Jerusalem's upscale Rehavia neighbourhood. The new government will face key diplomatic and foreign policy questions, including how to handle Iran's nuclear programme, which much of the world believes masks a weapons drive, and a Middle East profoundly changed by the Arab uprisings. But domestic challenges will be no less pressing, with a major budget crisis and austerity cuts on the horizon, even as Israelis express widespread discontent over spiralling prices.