By Allyn Fisher-Ilan
JERUSALEM, Feb 10 (Reuters) - Israelis vote on Tuesday in a parliamentary election held after a Gaza offensive, with polls showing rightist Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni locked in a race too close to call.
Some 5.3 million eligible voters casting ballots in more than 9,000 schools and community centres nationwide stand to decide whether U.S.-backed peacemaking which Livni’s Kadima party supports, or Netanyahu’s tougher stance, will prevail.
Likud party leader Netanyahu, once a clear frontrunner in opinion polls, has lost ground to Livni since the 22-day war last month in which 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed, locking the two in a statistical dead heat.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak, a third prominent candidate, trails both Netanyahu and Livni, though his poll numbers have more than doubled since the Gaza war that ended with each side calling a truce on Jan. 18.
The race could be determined by how many votes the smaller parties garner or the ballots of 10-to-15 percent of as yet undecided voters, pollsters said.
"The trend we’ve seen the last few days indicates a very close battle," said pollster Rafi Smith of the Smith Research Centre. "No one has jumped ahead and it’s tough to call."
Ultra-rightist Avigdor Lieberman, a potential spoiler for Netanyahu, has seen his popularity soar since the war that has focused public interest in the campaign on security concerns.
Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party pledges to get tougher with Palestinians, including Israeli Arab citizens and supports Jewish settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
Israelis vote by party, and parliament seats are allocated by proportional representation to national party lists. The party garnering the most votes traditionally has its leader designated to form a government or become prime minister.
WEEKS TO BUILD A COALITION
The political haggling involved in forming a new government could take weeks. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the outgoing leader who quit in a corruption probe in September, would stay on as caretaker premier until a new cabinet is sworn in.
Livni, 50, formerly of the Mossad, would become the first female prime minister since Golda Meir in the 1970s. Netanyahu, 59, a former finance minister, and Barak, 66, a former general, have also served previously as premiers.
As foreign minister Livni has led Western-backed peace talks with Palestinians that the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama wants to resume, but have thus far failed to yield a desired two-state solution. Netanyahu has indicated he would set tougher terms for any talks.
Underscoring the enduring conflict, Israel has clamped a closure on the occupied West Bank, denying Palestinians entry to the country for the duration of the election, the army said. Police were deploying thousands nationwide for extra security.
The Israeli campaign has been duller than past contests, with some blaming this on the fighting in Gaza including militant rocket fire at Israel which put rallies on hold for several weeks and dampened enthusiasm.
Israeli President Shimon Peres accused the candidates of failing to address "the country’s burning issues" in the campaign in which candidates did not hold a single debate.
Yitzhak Galnoor, a political scientist, said Israelis were largely bored by the campaign because it was "filled with slogans bereft of any content".
(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Michael Roddy)