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MID: Israel votes in tight election race

By Joseph Krauss
11 Feb 2009 2:46 AM

JERUSALEM, Feb 10 AFP - Israel has voted in a tight race between hawkish former premier Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, with the far-right set for major gains on the back of the Gaza war.

Despite fears the foul weather would keep voters indoors, 42 per cent of the almost 5.3 million electorate had on Tuesday voted nine hours into the balloting, slightly more than during the same period in the 2006 election.

Campaigning for the election, which will be crucial in determining the future of Middle East peacemaking, has been dominated by security following Israel's war on Gaza and its Hamas rulers.

With low turnouts typically favouring smaller right-wing parties, Livni's governing Kadima was taking no chances with the weather and reportedly bought 10,000 umbrellas to hand out to voters.

"Rain or no rain, cold or heat, you must come to the polling booth," the 50-year-old Livni said after voting in Tel Aviv. "Not out of despair, but out of hope."

For weeks, opinion polls have given the lead to Netanyahu, the media-savvy leader of the right-wing Likud whose campaign highlighted his credentials as a security hardliner.

But in recent days, Livni has clawed back some of the ground lost by Kadima which is still reeling from a series of corruption scandals that forced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign.

A record number of undecided voters -- around 20 per cent -- added a tinge of suspense to a largely lacklustre race.

The big surprise has been the meteoric rise of Avigdor Lieberman, a tough-talking Soviet immigrant whose support swelled after the Gaza war 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 set to play kingmaker in a coalition government.

No single party is expected to secure more than a third of the seats in the 120-seat Knesset and coalition negotiations promise to be an arduous affair.

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.

Final opinion polls gave Likud 25 to 27 seats, Kadima 23 to 25, Yisrael Beitenu 18-19 and Labour 14-17.

Netanyahu, 59, has vowed to topple Hamas and put a stop to rocket attacks which have continued sporadically since the January 18 end of the war that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

He also wants peace talks to focus on improving life in the West Bank before other issues are discussed.

"The people want a change and they will choose it today. Those who want to embark on a new path would rally with the Likud and with me," Netanyahu said after he voted.

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 concessions under US pressure and concluded two agreements with the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Opinion polls indicate he will emerge in the strongest position to form a government, and he has made it clear he would rather form a broad alliance including Kadima and Labour.

The election was called when Livni -- a former staunch Zionist nationalist who has become a determined advocate of creating a Palestinian state -- failed to form a government after she replaced Olmert as Kadima leader in September.

In her two and a half years as foreign minister, Livni spearheaded peace negotiations with the Palestinians which have made 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.

The Palestinian Authority has been careful not to voice publicly a preference for any candidate, but is hoping US President Barack Obama will help ensure that whoever becomes prime minister does not bury the already teetering peace process.

The Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip for their part said the vote would just produce more of the same.

"We don't differentiate between Zionist leaders as they all committed crimes against our people during many years and are competing to commit more," said Fawzi Barhum, a spokesman for the Islamist movement.

Polls were due to close at 2000 GMT (0700 AEDT Wednesday) with results expected early on Wednesday.