JERUSALEM — Deeply divided and foul of mood, Israelis are headed toward what seems like a referendum on their long-serving, silver-tongued 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 as no candidate is likely to win big in the wild jumble of Israel’s political landscape, the outcome of the March 17 election could well be a joint government between Netanyahu and his moderate challenger Isaac Herzog. It’s an irony, because the animosities are overwhelming.

Much has changed in the world since Netanyahu first became prime minister in 1996, but Israel remains stuck with the question of what to do with the highly strategic, biblically resonant, Palestinian-populated lands it captured almost a half-century ago.

Israelis know it is their existential issue, but it seems almost too complex for a democracy. After decades of failed peace talks under every sort of government, the whole festering thing has become such a vexation that politicians seem to fear it, and voters look away.

When he called the early election in November, Netanyahu seemed a shoo-in, but somewhere things went wrong. Notorious around the world for American-accented eloquence in the service of a tough stance, he is extraordinarily divisive at home, where he has been prime minister for the past six years, and for nine in total.

His speech last week before the U.S. Congress, urging a tighter deal than he believes is brewing on Iran’s nuclear program, was typical: He impressed some Israelis, while infuriating others who sensed a political ploy.

Polls show his nationalist Likud Party running slightly behind Herzog’s Labor Party, rebranded the Zionist Union in a bid for nationalist votes. There are scenarios in which Herzog becomes prime minister. And that would change the music: Herzog is a conciliator interested in ending the occupation of lands captured in the 1967 war.

Some things to watch for:

ISRAEL IS NEARLY UNGOVERNABLE: Combined, the two big parties get far less than half the vote. Then one finds a nationalist party appealing to Russian speakers, another for secular liberals and two for the squeezed middle class. There are four religious parties, for Jews of European versus Middle Eastern descent and for varying degrees of nationalism.

The schisms are real.

A KINGMAKER COMES: For the first time in decades, there is a new party that seems genuinely non-aligned: Kulanu, led by Moshe Kahlon, a working-class Likud breakaway of Libyan Jewish descent who became popular for reducing mobile phone costs in previous governments. He says he will go with whichever side makes him finance minister – as both almost certainly would – and seeks to reduce the cost of living. He appears to care little about the Palestinian issue.

Every recent poll shows him holding the balance of power.

THE RELUCTANT RIGHT: The winning bloc often rules in alliance with parts of the other bloc. Such coalitions widen the base and win points for moderation and inclusiveness. They are also paralyzed by disagreement and tend to collapse of their internal contradictions, as Netanyahu’s did four months ago.

Likud seems especially reluctant to rule on its own, preferring a grand coalition with Labor or centrist parties rather than one with just its nationalist and religious allies. At least in part, that looks like an admission that truly nationalist policies – such as annexations in the West Bank – would so offend the world and provoke the Palestinians as to bring ruin.

IMPOSSIBLE PEACE? Even among proponents of a West Bank pullout, the talk is of saving Israel demographically as a Jewish-majority state rather than of making peace. Many yearn for unilateral moves, having given up on the possibility of a negotiated deal.

Israel might conceivably agree to the near-total West Bank pullout. The Palestinians may agree to drop the demand that refugees’ descendants be allowed to move to Israel. But the real conundrum is Jerusalem, where a division of the intertwined holy city along ethnic lines could lead to a tinderbox extraordinaire.

Providing the worst of precedents is Gaza, the other part of the would-be Palestinian state. Israel handed control to Mahmoud Abbas in 2005. But Hamas seized the strip and have been blockaded by Israel. Three wars have been fought.

Then there are security threats to Israel from elsewhere in the region: Iran, its proxy Hezbollah, Islamic State, al-Qaida radicals on the border with a disintegrating, still-hostile Syria.

Given the widespread pessimism, Herzog subtly dodges the peace issue, perhaps for fear of appearing naive.

UNITY GOVERNMENT POSSIBLE: With neither Netanyahu nor Herzog likely to win a convincing majority, a plausible outcome has their parties banding together. They may also agree to rotate as prime minister.

Such has already happened in 1984. Labor’s Shimon Peres and Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir switched jobs halfway through. But the main issue, then as now, was the West Bank; Peres negotiated over it with Jordan, only to see his peace plans scuttled by Shamir. Thereafter the first Palestinian uprising began.

Many fear another one is coming, even as Israelis focus on the price of cottage cheese.