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Israeli parties in last-ditch scramble for votes

Israeli candidates scrambled to win over a record number of undecided voters, the eve of a tight parliamentary election dominated by the meteoric rise of an ultra-nationalist party.

world Updated: Feb 10, 2009 07:56 IST

Israeli candidates scrambled to win over a record number of undecided voters on Monday, the eve of a tight parliamentary election dominated by the meteoric rise of an ultra-nationalist party.

The centrist Kadima party and its right-wing rival Likud embarked on a last-minute campaign to woo voters, with opinion polls showing them running almost neck-and-neck in a race that is crucial for the future of Middle East peacemaking.

But Avigdor Lieberman, a former bouncer who has built his reputation on vitriolic attacks against Israeli Arabs, was basking in the spotlight -- poised to be crowned kingmaker with his party predicted to become the third largest in parliament.

Final opinion polls published before Tuesday's vote showed the governing Kadima party closing the gap on Likud to just a few seats, filling the sails of the centrist party that had been trailing in previous surveys.

With the number of undecided voters at a record high of 20 percent, party leaders are battling it out for every vote as opinion polls gave the Likud faction of former hardline premier Benjamin Netanyahu 25 to 27 seats in parliament, and Kadima 23 to 25.

"Victory is within reach," said Foreign Minister and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who is aiming to become Israel's second woman prime minister after Golda Meir in the 1970s.

"If Kadima gets just one mandate more than Likud, we will be able to form a governing coalition as we are a centrist party that can bring together the right and the left," she told public radio.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said during a visit to Warsaw that he was ready to cooperate with any new Israeli government, although peace talks have been at a dead end since Israel's war on Gaza.

In the complex world of Israeli politics, the person the president will charge with forming a coalition is not automatically the one who wins the most votes, but the one who has the highest chances of securing at least 61 seats in the 120-member parliament.

Livni is hoping a strong showing will draw smaller parties to her camp and away from Netanyahu, who nevertheless looks likely to win the most backing for a coalition.

Local media say Netanyahu is concerned that the last-minute drop in support would mean he will head a shaky government that could last only a year or so, and has sought to brandish his credentials as a security hardliner.

On Monday he toured the Golan Heights, vowing never to cede the territory that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed in 1981, as part of any peace deal with Damascus.

"Anyone who wants me as prime minister needs to vote Likud. Otherwise he'll get Livni and Kadima in power," he told Israeli media.

Forecasters have warned of heavy rains and gusty winds for Tuesday, predicting the foulest electoral weather in the 60-year history of the Jewish state, which could depress turnout to a historic low.

Meanwhile, Lieberman was relishing opinion polls that show Yisrael Beitenu is set to knock the veteran Labour party to its worst-ever showing of fourth place.

"Start getting used to this, and start learning these names," the Maariv daily quoted Lieberman as telling reporters as he pointed to party members at an election rally on Sunday.

Yisrael Beitenu has changed its election night headquarters from a small hotel in Tel Aviv to a large one in Jerusalem near a building housing many international media.

Support for Lieberman has swelled in past weeks in the wake of the Gaza war, as his tough stances on Israeli Arabs and Hamas found fertile ground with voters concerned with security and distrustful of past politicians.

"Lieberman is the scarecrow that panic-stricken Israelis want to place in the political cornfield in the hope that the Arabs are crows: that they will... take fright," wrote a columnist in the mass-selling Yediot Aharonot.

Lieberman, who in the past has called for execution of Israeli Arab MPs who have had dealings with the Hamas movement pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state, has made "No Citizenship Without Loyalty" a central theme of his campaign.

But President Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace laureate, told public radio he was concerned about any incitement to violence against one part of the electorate.

"Arabs, like all the citizens of the country, have the same rights and duties as everyone else."