Israeli candidates in last ditch scramble for votes

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israeli candidates scrambled to win over a record number of undecided voters on Monday, the eve of a tight parliamentary election dominated by the meteoric rise of an ultra-nationalist party. The centrist Kadima party and its right-wing rival Likud struggled to woo undecided voters, with polls showing them running neck-and-neck in a race that could have a major impact on Middle East peacemaking. Avigdor Lieberman, a former bouncer who has vowed to hit Israel's enemies with an iron fist, was poised to be crowned kingmaker with his party projected to become the third largest in parliament. Final opinion polls published before Tuesday's vote showed the governing Kadima closing the gap on Likud to just a few seats, filling the sails of the governing centrist party that had been trailing in previous surveys. With the number of undecided voters at a record high of 20 percent, party leaders are battling it out for every vote as opinion polls gave the Likud faction of former hardline premier Benjamin Netanyahu 25 to 27 seats in parliament, and Kadima 23 to 25. "Victory is within reach," said Foreign Minister and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni who is bidding to become the second woman prime minister in Israeli history. "If Kadima gets just one mandate more than Likud, we will be able to form a governing coalition as we are a centrist party that can bring together the right and the left," she told public radio. Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said in Warsaw he was ready to cooperate with any new Israeli government, although peace talks have been at a dead end since Israel's war on Gaza. In the complex world of Israeli politics, the person the president will charge with forming a coalition is not automatically the one who wins the most votes, but the one who has the best chance of cobbling together a governing coalition of at least 61 seats in the 120-member parliament. Netanyahu looks likely to win the most backing for a coalition. Despite the anticipated strong showing by right-wing parties, he has made it clear he would rather have a broad coalition that would include Kadima and the left-of-centre Labour party of Defence Minister Ehud Barak. "A narrow government would not be in a position to face the challenges posed by the threat of a nuclear Iran, Hamas, rocket fire and the economic crisis," Netanyahu said on Sunday. But evidently worried about the last-minute drop in support, he has gone all out to show off his credentials as a security hardliner. On Monday he toured the Golan Heights, vowing never to cede the territory that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed in 1981. Forecasters have warned of heavy rains and gusty winds for Tuesday, predicting the foulest electoral weather in the 60-year history of the Jewish state, which could depress turnout to a historic low. Meanwhile, Lieberman was relishing opinion polls that showed Yisrael Beitenu would knock the veteran Labour party to its worst-ever showing of fourth place. "Start getting used to this, and start learning these names," the Maariv daily quoted Lieberman as telling reporters as he pointed to party members at an election rally on Sunday. Support for Lieberman has swelled in past weeks in the wake of the Gaza war, as his tough stances on Israeli Arabs and Hamas found fertile ground with voters concerned with security and distrustful of past politicians. "Lieberman is the scarecrow that panic-stricken Israelis want to place in the political cornfield in the hope that the Arabs are crows: that they will... take fright," wrote a columnist in the mass-selling Yediot Aharonot. Lieberman " who in the past has called for executing Israeli Arab MPs who have had dealings with the Hamas movement that rules Gaza " has made "No Citizenship Without Loyalty" a central theme of his campaign. But President Shimon Peres told public radio he was concerned about any incitement to violence against one part of the electorate. "Arabs, like all the citizens of the country, have the same rights and duties as everyone else."

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