JERUSALEM, Feb 10 – Israel voted on Tuesday in what is billed as a tight race between hawkish former premier Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, with the far-right expected to make major gains.,
Polls opened at 0500 GMT and were to close 15 hours later, with more than 5.2 million voters eligible to cast ballots at 9,263 polling stations across the country. Heavy rains and gusting winds were expected to depress turnout.
For weeks, opinion polls have given the lead to Netanyahu, the media-savvy leader of the right-wing Likud party whose campaign highlighted his credentials as a security hardliner.
But in recent days, Livni has clawed back some of the ground lost by her Kadima party which is still reeling from a series of corruption scandals that forced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign.
The big surprise of the campaign has been the meteoric rise of Avigdor Lieberman, a tough-talking Soviet immigrant whose support swelled in the wake of the war on Gaza as he vowed to hit Israel’s enemies with an iron fist.
With opinion polls showing Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party displacing Labour in third position, the former bouncer looks likely to play kingmaker in a government whose makeup will be crucial in determining the fate of Middle East peacemaking.
No single party is expected to secure more than a third of the seats in the 120-seat Knesset, the 120-seat parliament, and coalition negotiations promise to be an arduous task.
In the byzantine world of Israeli politics, the person asked to form a government is not automatically the one whose party garnered the most votes, but the one with the most chances of cobbling together 61 seats.
With the number of undecided voters estimated at a record 20 percent, party leaders went on a last-ditch scramble for votes. But forecasts for miserably wet and windy weather have raised fears turnout could be the lowest in Israel’s 60-year history.
Final opinion polls gave Likud 25 to 27 seats, Kadima 23 to 25 seats, Yisrael Beitenu 18-19 and Labour 14-17.
Netanyahu, 59, has vowed that if elected he would topple the Hamas rulers of Gaza and put a stop to rocket attacks which have continued sporadically since the end of Israel’s 22-day Gaza onslaught that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians.
He also wants Middle East peace talks to focus on improving life in the West Bank rather than the creation of a Palestinian state which he says can be discussed once conditions are ripe.
As premier from 1996 to 1999, he put the brakes on the peace process, in part by authorising a major expansion of Jewish settlements.
But he also made more concessions than his hard-line rhetoric had led Israelis to expect, and under US pressure he concluded two agreements with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Opinion polls indicate he will emerge from the election in the strongest position to form a government, and he has made it clear he would rather form a broad alliance that would include Kadima and Labour.
"The last thing he needs now is to marry Lieberman, he would like to present a face of a moderate, pragmatic leader. He doesn’t need this right now," said Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the 1993 Oslo accords on Palestinian autonomy.
The election was called after Livni — a former staunch Zionist nationalist who has become a determined advocate of creating a Palestinian state — rejected demands of the ultra-Orthodox Shas to commit not to negotiate the future of Jerusalem as part of Middle East peace talks.
A 50-year-old lawyer and former Mossad spy, Livni has a reputation for integrity that kept her out of the corruption scandals that have sullied Israeli politics for years and that ultimately forced Olmert to step down.
In her two and a half years as foreign minister Livni spearheaded peace negotiations with the Palestinians which have produced little visible progress.
But she has distanced herself from statements by Olmert who said he favoured removing 60,000 settlers from the West Bank and giving Palestinians sovereignty over some sections of Jerusalem.
"Each prime minister chooses his way, what he had chosen is not mine. I am not associated with this proposition," Livni said, also distancing herself from indirect talks with Syria.
The Palestinian Authority has been careful not to publicly voice a preference for any candidate, but is evidently hoping US President Barack Obama will help ensure that whoever becomes prime minister does not bury the already teetering peace process.
"I don’t know who will win the elections, but we will cooperate with any new Israeli government emerging from the elections on the basis of the bilateral accords and the international resolutions which have been adopted up to this point," said Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.