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Tight finish likely as last day of campaigning ends before Israel elections

Candidates in Israel's elections have campaigned for the last day before polls open on Tuesday. Latest opinion polls show incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu trailing chief rival Isaac Herzog's center-left Zionist Union.

Standing in front of the Har Homa Jewish settlement he helped found, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed to voters who have switched allegiances to "come home" to the Likud party.

"The choice is symbolic: the Likud led by me, that will continue to stand firmly for (Israel's) vital interests, compared with a left-wing government (…) ready to accept any dictate," he said.

Netanyahu has worked to convince Israelis he would ensure that all current Jewish settlements in the disputed West Bank would stay put, writing on his Facebook page that Likud "will not divide Jerusalem."

The move was designed to try claw back ground lost to main rival Isaac Herzog's Zionist Union party.

Polls predict the Zionist Union will take between 24 and 26 seats in the 120-member parliament, the Knesset, compared to Likud's 20 to 22.

As no party has ever won an outright majority alone, it is up to Israel's president to pick the politician he believes has the best chance of forming a coalition to go first.

This is exactly what opposition leader Herzog is trying to avoid, pleading with citizens to work with him to oust Netanyahu, also known as "Bibi."

He says voting for anyone other than the Zionist Union will "prevent the turnaround and keep Israel stuck with Bibi."

Security focus

Netanyahu has largely concentrated on security issues, including a controversial visit to Washington two weeks ago to speak at a Republican conference.

He has also warned against making any deals with Iran over its nuclear program.

But commentators have complained he has overlooked voters' concerns about everyday issues such as the cost of housing and food.

Netanyahu, who has ruled Israel for three back-to-back terms, called the election in December, two years ahead of schedule.

He made the announcement after firing two key ministers from his cabinet over opposing views.

The new power-brokers

Experts say though that neither party looks likely to win a governing majority, possibly handing the decision to two centrist parties, Yesh Atid and Kulanu.

Analysts say this is where Netanyahu has the advantage, as it would be easier for his right-wing party to form a coalition with other conservative and hardline parties.

The nation's president, Reuven Rivlin, has said that if there is no clear winner he would meet with both candidates and discuss forming a national unity government.

If both sides can't agree on political and socio-economic issues, they should at least work to reform the country's electoral system so that Israel doesn't "turn into Italy," and hold early elections every two years.

Both Netanyahu and Herzog have expressed their dislike over the plan.

Political scientist Avraham Diskin said with most voters staying loyal to the left-or right-win, even a small swing in the electorate can make a big impact.

"It's enough for three to five percent to move from one bloc to another to get a dramatic change in the future government of Israel," he said.

Final results are expected on March 25, with the new government likely to be sworn in on March 31.

an/kms (dpa, Reuters, AFP)

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