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Israelis Go to Polls in Close Race Marked by Gaza War

Israelis went to the polls on Tuesday, aware of ongoing sporadic rocket attacks from Gaza and after one of the briefest election campaigns in their country's history, cut short by Israel's war in the strip.

israeli flag and a person casting a vote

Some 5.3 million eligible voters will be casting ballots nationwide

Surveys have predicted a sharp pull to the right amid the rocket fire, with the opposition Likud of hawkish former premier Benjamin Netanyahu leading the race, followed closely by the ruling Kadima of centrist Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Strong gains are also expected for the ultra-right, Soviet-born Avigdor Lieberman, whose Israel Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) hopes to leap frog the left-to-center Labor Party of Defense Minister Ehud Barak to become for the first time ever the third-largest party in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

According to the last opinion polls held before election day, the Likud can expect to at least double its current 12 mandates in the 120-seat Israeli parliament, to around 25-27.

Kadima, whose outgoing premier Ehud Olmert resigned in September, paving the way for the early elections, fears losing several seats, from 29 in the outgoing legislative period to some 23-25.

The most likely candidate

The remains of tread from an Israeli vehicle lay half-buried in a northern Gaza Strip field

The outcome of the Israeli elections will be heavily influenced by the war in Gaza

Netanyahu, who was premier from 1996-1999, is therefore the most likely candidate to become Israel's next prime minister, but with an unusually large number of Israelis still undecided, Livni hopes to make last-minute gains and close the gap of some two to three seats.

Even if she does, however, a majority of likely future lawmakers say they plan to recommend to President Shimon Peres that he charge Netanyahu, 59, not Livni, 50, with forming the next government, according to an opinion poll published in the Jerusalem Post.

The right-wing bloc is expected to grow to a clear majority of around 65 to 67 seats and Lieberman may well hold the key to any new coalition.

Commentators said on Monday that the 22-day war in Gaza, which Israel ended three weeks ago, is the one factor most influencing Tuesday's elections.

Israel launched the deadly and destructive offensive, which left some 1,300 Gazans and 13 Israelis dead, on Dec. 27, weeks after a fragile, six-month truce mediated by Egypt between it and the radical Islamic Hamas movement ruling Gaza collapsed, prompting another surge in rocket attacks from the coastal strip.

Strong leader wanted

Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu

Netanyahu is likely to become prime minister for the second time

Hardline Israelis say they want a "strong" leader, able and willing to deal harshly with the threats against their security, pointing out the war and the rocket-fire running up to it brought home to them that with Hamas ruling Gaza, they believe their country has no viable peace partner.

Both Lieberman and Netanyahu have been vying for their support.

The former, a 50-year-old hardliner from Moldova who speaks heavy-accented Hebrew and immigrated to Israel in 1978, has used his campaign to attack what he calls the "radicalization" of Israel's Arab citizens. He demands that those who are not "loyal" to the state be stripped off their citizenship, prompting Arab party leaders to denounce him as a "fascist" and a "racist."

Hinting at Lieberman, Peres said Monday he was "worried" about the "incitement" in the election campaigning.

The president, whose task in Israel is largely ceremonial apart from his role in nominating a politician to form a new government, told Israel Radio he would only begin consultations about whom to assign to the task after final results are in, eight days after the elections.

Cooperation possible

Tzipi Livni speaks at a campaign event in Kfar Saba

Livni's Kadima party is reeling from corruption scandals

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, said in Warsaw that he would work with any new Israeli government.

His foreign minister, Riyad Malki, accused Hamas of trying to influence the Israeli elections by continuing rocket attacks from Gaza, charging in the Polish capital that the Islamist group did not want to see a pro-peace government in Israel that would reach a peace agreement with Abbas' West Bank administration.

A series of bus bombings by Hamas in the run up to the 1996 elections is widely credited with heaving influenced that vote, allowing Netanyahu at the time to snatch a narrow victory over Peres, then leader of the Labor Party.

According to a military spokesman in Tel Aviv, Palestinian militants have launched some 40 rockets and mortar shells from Gaza since Israel ended its offensive on Jan. 18. Two landed in Israel on Sunday, prompting it to retaliate with two overnight airstrikes.

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