Israeli poll shapes up to be a cliffhanger

ISRAEL’S national election is likely to be a cliffhanger, pollsters said yesterday, on the eve of a vote in which right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party had been forecast to emerge victorious.

“The trend we’ve seen the last few days indicates a very close battle,” said pollster Rafi Smith of the Smith Research Center. “No one has jumped ahead and it’s tough to call.”

Likud has been the front-runner since November, after Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of the ruling, centrist Kadima party forced a new election by failing to form a government following Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation in a corruption scandal.

Smith said the gap between Likud and its closest rival, Kadima, has narrowed, with Avigdor Lieberman of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party drawing support from traditional Likud backers.

“At least 10% of voters are still undecided, and they will determine the outcome,” Smith said.

Pollster Dori Shadmon of the TNS Israel institute said, with more than a dozen parties vying for seats in the 120-member parliament, predicting a result was hard.

“It’s a close fight and it’s still open,” Shadmon said.

The election race has focused on security issues in the wake of Israel’s 22-day Gaza offensive.

Leading candidates have stepped up efforts to try to woo those still on the fence, mostly by attacking rivals.

Netanyahu’s camp, which has watched its numbers steadily drop, reversed its strategy of laying low by describing the popular Lieberman and his fiery rhetoric as a passing phenomenon and a wasted vote.

Lieberman, who immigrated from the Soviet Union in 1978, wants to trade land, on which many of Israel’s 1.5 million Arab citizens live, for West Bank Jewish settlements in any peace deal with the Palestinians. Critics have described that policy as anti-Arab, along with his demand that all Israelis be required to swear allegiance to the Jewish state in order to vote or hold elected office.

Livni, who hopes to become the first female prime minister since Golda Meir in the 1970s, has painted Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak of Labour, both former prime ministers, as failures.

Israeli president Shimon Peres chided candidates for focusing on personality issues rather than on matters at the core of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

In today’s election, the Knesset’s seats are allocated by proportional representation to national party lists.

Once the results are in, Peres consults with party leaders and picks a legislator to try to form a government. Traditionally, the task goes to the leader of the party that wins the most votes and he or she has 42 days to put together an administration.

In a last-minute move, Olmert, who remains caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed, endorsed Livni on camera for the first time.

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