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Israeli polls predict Netanyahu win in close race

The final opinion polls before next week's Israeli election showed a narrowing race Friday but still projected a victory by hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party.

world Updated: Feb 06, 2009 22:57 IST

The final opinion polls before next week's Israeli election showed a narrowing race Friday but still projected a victory by hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party. A series of polls in Israeli newspapers gave Likud a slight lead over the


centrist Kadima Party, which is led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

But the polls showed that voters clearly prefer hard-line parties, predicting Likud and its conservative allies would hold a solid majority in the 120-seat parliament. Such results would likely spell trouble for the U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Israelis vote for parties, not individual candidates, and no individual party has ever held a majority.

Instead, the largest party normally heads a coalition with smaller allies. If Friday's projections are accurate, Netanyahu, a vocal critic of the current peace efforts, would become the next prime minister. One poll forecast Likud party winning 27 seats, compared with 25 seats for Kadima. But the poll predicted that Likud, along with other nationalist parties, could garner a total of 66 seats, compared with only 54 for centrist and more dovish parties. The Dialog company poll, published Friday in the daily Haaretz, surveyed 1,000 people and had a 3-percentage-point margin of error. Polls in Israel's two other daily newspapers had similar results. All of the polls asked voters which party would they vote for. Under Israeli election rolls, the polls were the last that can be published before Tuesday's vote.

Livni and Netanyahu represent very different directions in Mideast peacemaking. Livni has been the chief negotiator with the Palestinians over the past year of peace talks and supports an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu says no agreement is possible in the foreseeable future, and instead says he will try to jump-start the Palestinian economy while continuing Israel's military occupation indefinitely. Israel captured the West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, in the 1967 Mideast war. It withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and has annexed east Jerusalem, though the move has never been internationally recognized.

The Dialog poll said 15 percent of Israelis remained undecided. Candidates across the spectrum spent Friday on the campaign trail trying to rally last-minute support.

Livni held a noisy, colorful women's rally in Jerusalem, dancing to loud music and singing with Dana International, a popular transsexual entertainer. The pink-and-white themed attempt had a rock-concert feel, as throngs of people jostled to get a glimpse of Livni or have their picture taken with her.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, headed to a Jewish settlement in the northern West Bank, shaking hands with residents and warning them that Livni would try to withdraw from the area and hand it over to Palestinian control.

Perhaps the most striking poll result indicated that Defense Minister Ehud Barak's moderate Labor Party, which long dominated Israeli politics, has been pushed out of third place by hard-liner Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party. The Haaretz poll showed Lieberman surging to 18 seats, compared with Labor's 14. That sets Lieberman up as a kingmaker, holding the crucial swing votes that the winner will need to form a government. Lieberman clearly leans toward Netanyahu.

A tough-talking immigrant from Moldova who succeeded in turning a party for immigrants from the former Soviet Union into one with broad national appeal, Lieberman has centered his platform on attacking Israel's Arab citizens, demanding that they sign an oath of loyalty or lose their right to vote or be elected. Perhaps his most polarizing policy is to redraw Israel's borders, pushing areas with heavy concentrations of Arabs outside the country and under Palestinian jurisdiction. Lieberman appears to be capitalizing on a swell of anti-Arab sentiment among Israelis, fueled partially by the rocket fire from Gaza that sparked Israel's recent offensive there.