Wed, Feb 11, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Bibi ahead as polls open in Israel

RIGHT OR CENTER? Official results for the close race, whose outcome will have direct implications for the Middle East peace process, are expected at dawn today

AGENCIES , JERUSALEM AND GAZA

An Orthodox Jew casts his ballot in parliamentary elections at a school in Jerusalem yesterday.

PHOTO: AFP

Israeli officials said yesterday that polls had opened for the general election that pits former prime minister Benjamin “Bibi” 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 7am. Polls were open in all but the smallest communities until 10pm.

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 would likely have to form a coalition with smaller parties.

Voters in Jerusalem and other parts of Israel braved pouring rain and strong winds yesterday morning, expected to keep numbers low.

The Israeli military announced a closure of the West Bank from midnight on Monday until midnight yesterday, barring Palestinians from entering Israel except for urgent medical treatment.

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

Acknowledging the closeness of the race, the Hebrew-language Maariv daily published a reversible front page yesterday with portraits of Netanyahu 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.”

“It is so close and it depends only on us,” she said.

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 Middle East peace efforts and put Netanyahu on a collision course with the new US administration.

Meanwhile, Israel and Hamas narrowed gaps over a longer-term truce for the Gaza Strip and could begin implementing a deal within days, Hamas officials said on Monday.

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