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Israeli polls open for general election

ISRAELI officials said yesterday that polls had opened for the general election that pits former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party against Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her ruling Kadima Party.

Most of the country's 9,263 polling stations opened as scheduled at 7 am (0500 GMT, 12 am EST ). Polls are open in all but the smallest communities until 10 pm (2000 GMT, 3 pm EST).

For months, opinion polls have predicted a decisive victory by Netanyahu's Likud Party. But new polls released over the weekend showed Kadima closing the gap. Neither is expected to get more than 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament, however, meaning the winner will likely have to form a coalition with smaller parties.

"Voting began at seven o'clock," national election official Benny Lahav told Israel Radio. He said the first estimates of voter turnout would be compiled at around 10 am.

Voters in Jerusalem and other parts of Israel braved pouring rain and strong winds yesterday morning, expected to keep numbers low. Voter turnout in the last election in 2006 was 63.2 percent, the lowest in Israel's history.

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 at times like elections or religious festivals, when Israelis gather in public places and present a potential target for Palestinian militant attacks.

In the northern Israeli Arab town of Umm el-Fahm, where right-wing Jewish extremist Baruch Marzel was scheduled to serve as a polling official, heavy police reinforcements stood ready for any unrest from local people opposed to his presence there.

Exit polls are expected to start making projections as soon as polls close, with the first official results starting to come in before dawn Wednesday.

Acknowledging the closeness of the race, the Hebrew-language Maariv daily published a reversible front page Tuesday with portraits of Natanyahu and Livni, each captioned "The next prime minister." The reader chooses which way up he or she holds the paper.

In voting-day remarks to Maariv, Livni offered Israelis "a leadership that has vision and a backbone of values and morals."

She concluded: "It is so close, and it depends only on us.

If the hawkish Netanyahu garners the most votes, as polls predict, the big question will be whether he will try to put together a right-wing or centrist coalition government. An alliance that relies on ultranationalists and hawkish religious parties would likely doom Mideast peace efforts and put Netanyahu on a collision course with the new US administration.

Several polls show Likud losing votes to smaller hardline conservatives, which while keeping the right-wing bloc ahead as a whole could create a somewhat unruly alliance.

"It is vital that the prime minister have a large party that has received widespread public confidence," Netanyahu said in Maariv. "Israel cannot afford superfluous domestic crises and a leadership that is like a wagon with different horses pulling it in different directions."

A partnership with the moderate Kadima and Labor parties might push Netanyahu toward the middle, but it is unlikely he would agree to far-reaching compromises, such as uprooting Jewish settlements or ceding partial control of Jerusalem, for peace with the Palestinians.


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