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Livni tells Israeli voters to ignore the rain

THE two front-runners in the race to rule Israel made last-minute appeals to voters as polls opened yesterday in a close general election whose outcome could determine the course of Mideast peace negotiations.

Opinion polls have for months 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 Israelis to do the same, despite rainy weather that could keep the 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 no rain, cold or hot, go out, go to the polling station, go into the booth, close your eyes, and vote," 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 to a sense among Israelis that territorial withdrawals like the country's 2005 Gaza pullout have only brought more violence.

With 33 parties running in the election, polls over the weekend showed more than 15 percent of Israelis still undecided.

Netanyahu is portraying himself as the candidate best equipped to deal with the threats that Israel faces.

"I will do everything so that our enemies won't provoke us, won't think we're weak, won't rain down their rockets," he said in the southern city of Beersheba.

"They'll know that in Israel there's a different government, a strong prime minister who will answer with a crushing response to any attack on us."

Netanyahu opposes ceding land to the Palestinians and favors allowing Israeli settlements in the West Bank to expand.

Livni says a West Bank withdrawal is necessary for Israel's own security.


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