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    Israelis vote: Livni, Netanyahu in close race

    Jerusalem (AP): The two front-runners in the race to rule Israel made last-minute appeals to voters as polls opened on Tuesday in a close general election whose outcome could determine the course of Mideast peace negotiations.

    Opinion polls for months have predicted a decisive victory for the hard-line Likud Party, headed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But new polls released over the weekend showed the Kadima Party, led by moderate Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, closing the gap.

    After casting her vote at a Tel Aviv polling station, Livni called on fellow-Israelis to do the same, despite rainy weather that was expected to keep turnout low.

    "I have just done what I want every citizen in Israel to do first of all to get out of the house, rain or not, cold or hot, go out, go to the polling station, go into the booth, close your eyes, and vote not out of fear or despair and think about hope," Livni said.

    Livni was one of the architects of Israel's offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip last month and has been striving to present an image of herself as tough but sensible.

    Despite the narrow gap between Livni and Netanyahu, polls have predicted that voters will take a sharp turn to the right and elect a parliament dominated by hard-line parties opposed to territorial concessions. That would make it difficult for Livni to form a government even if she wins.

    The national mood is at least partially linked to the rocket fire from Gaza that sparked Israel's recent offensive there and a sense among Israelis that territorial withdrawals like the country's 2005 Gaza pullout have only brought more violence.

    Rami Golan, 60, a chef in Jerusalem, said Israel needed a "strong government."

    "We need a strong man who knows what he wants to do. We need someone who will keep us safe," Golan said. He had yet to decide who to vote for, he said. Polls over the weekend showed that more than 15 percent of Israelis were still undecided.

    Netanyahu opposes ceding land to the Palestinians and favors allowing Israeli settlements in the West Bank to expand, two points that are likely to put him on a collision course with the new U.S. administration. Livni, who hopes to become the first woman to lead Israel in 35 years, has served as chief negotiator with the Palestinians and says a West Bank withdrawal is necessary for Israel's own security.

    Neither is expected to get more than 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament, however, meaning the winner will have to form a coalition with smaller parties. A fractious coalition unable to make difficult decisions could further complicate efforts to create a Palestinian state and pose a challenge to President Barack Obama, who has said he will become "aggressively" involved in pursuing Mideast peace.

    The next prime minister must be from a party that has broad public support, Netanyahu told the Maariv newspaper ahead of the vote.

    "Israel cannot afford superfluous domestic crises and a leadership that is like a wagon with different horses pulling it in different directions," he said.

    The Israeli military announced a closure of the West Bank from midnight Monday until midnight Tuesday, barring Palestinians from entering Israel except for urgent medical treatment. Such closures are routine during elections and religious festivals, when Israelis gather in public places and present a potential target for militant attacks.

    Security officials are particularly wary of the possibility of an attack by Palestinians who may be seeking to avenge Israel's harsh 22-day Gaza campaign, which ended January 18. About 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the offensive, according to Gaza health officials, and 13 Israelis also died in the campaign, meant to halt militant rocket fire aimed at southern Israel.

    Most polling stations were to be open until 10 pm (1.30 am IST, Wednesday). Exit polls were expected to release projections soon after the polls close, and the first official results were expected before dawn on Wednesday.

    If the hawkish Netanyahu garners the most votes, as polls predict, he will have to choose whether to put together a coalition based on hard-line parties or reach out to centrists like Livni in an attempt to form a more moderate government. An alliance that relies on ultranationalists and hawkish religious parties would likely doom Mideast peace efforts.

    A partnership with the moderate parties like Kadima and Labor, headed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, might push Netanyahu toward the middle, but it is unlikely he would agree to uproot Jewish settlements or cede partial control of Jerusalem, both of which would be necessary for peace with the Palestinians.

    What Israelis want most from this election is quiet, said Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem.

    "Israelis are overwhelmed by security pressures, by fear of the future, by a sense of unworthy leadership. Israelis look at the Middle East and feel the walls coming in, there are terrorist enclaves on our borders and we don't seem to have answers," he said.

    "We just fought a war that we won and even that war has not stopped the missiles from falling. So Israelis look around and say, 'No one can deliver peace, no one can deliver security, who can we depend on?"'

    Pouring rain and strong winds Tuesday could keep turnout low. Voter turnout in the last election in 2006 was 63.2 per cent, the lowest in Israel's history, reflecting a widespread sense of frustration with the political system.


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