Israeli election battle seen too close to call

JERUSALEM Mon Feb 9, 2009 4:57pm EST

1 of 11. Israel's Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a ballot for the Likud during a meeting with supporters in Herzliya near Tel Aviv, February 9, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Gil Cohen Magen

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's national election is likely to be a cliff-hanger, pollsters said on Monday, on the eve of a vote right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party had been forecast to win.

"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 new 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 percent of voters are still undecided, and they will determine the outcome," Smith said.

Pollster Dori Shadmon of the TNS Israel institute said with about a dozen parties in serious contention for seats in the 120-member parliament, predicting a result was difficult.

"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.

"There hasn't been much excitement about this election. They haven't really been talking about the issues people care about," said Alex Mayorenko, 22, a Jerusalem resident.

"There are only small distinctions between the candidates, not enough to really make a difference."

In the occupied West Bank, Palestinians said they harbored few hopes the Israeli election heralded a change for the better.

"We have tried the Likud, Kadima and Labor parties, and each one of them obstructs the peace process in its own way," said Imad Saify, 38, from Ramallah.

STRATEGY CHANGE

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 Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Labor, 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.

"The country's burning issues weren't properly addressed or fully given voice in the election campaign," Peres told Israel Radio. "There is always a personal side to elections ... what has surprised me is the proportion between the two."

In Tuesday'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.

Livni had called for Olmert's resignation after the 2006 Lebanon war that many Israelis saw as a failure. Political sources said their relationship has been rocky since.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Ori Lewis; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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