As voting began in Israel’s election on Tuesday, a ballot voters have been told could determine the future borders of their state, pollsters remained undecided about the make-up of the next government coalition.
A series of conflicting last-minute opinion polls spread alarm through the major parties, according to local commentators, although all agreed that Ehud Olmert’s centrist Kadima party would emerge with the largest number of seats in the 120-member Knesset.
Whether he secures 37 seats, however, as some polls predicted, or as few as 32, as others claimed, could determine his mandate for a plan for further unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank as a step towards fixing Israel’s frontier with the Palestinians.
Some polls saw Labour strengthening while others detected a last-minute switch to the right. Avigdor Lieberman’s Russian immigrant-based Yisrael Beitenu was tipped to win as many as 12 seats or as few as 7 seats in separate polls.
Attempting to explain the volatility, the mass-circulation Yedioth Aharonoth said: “The main reason is Kadima: a new party that has no history and receives popularity in the polls.”
Kadima is down from the 45-seat level it gained in the immediate aftermath of its foundation last November by Ariel Sharon, then prime minister. With Mr Sharon in a coma following a stroke in January, some support ebbed away but no single party profited from the slide.
Labour, in spite of the evident popularity and the vigorous campaign of Amir Peretz, its former union boss leader, is still hovering between 17-21 seats in the polls. The rightwing Likud, under Benjamin Netanyahu, has been frozen on about 14, slipping to 13 yesterday.
Even with 36 seats in the new Knesset, Mr Olmert would need 25 coalition partners from other parties to secure a bare majority. Received wisdom is that he would seek an alliance with Mr Peretz, although his options might extend to more rightwing and religious minority parties.
With Likud in the doldrums, it appeared unlikely Mr Netanyahu would be able to put together a blocking coalition of the right to keep Mr Olmert out of power.
A poll in the daily Haaretz yesterday indicated an unusually high proportion of undecided voters amounted to 28 seats in Israel’s proportional representation system.
In Gaza, Ismail Haniya, Hamas’s incoming Palestinian prime minister, gave a conciliatory speech to his parliament on the eve of the Israeli poll as he presented it with his cabinet list.
“We have never been seekers of war,” he said. “We have never been callers for terrorism and bloodshed.” Commentators said it was unlikely to sway many Israeli voters who had abandoned hopes of finding a Palestinian peace partner.
In Jerusalem, Tzipi Livni, Israeli foreign minister and Kadima’s most popular candidate, faced a boisterous reception when she campaigned in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, a blue-collar bastion of rightwing sentiment.
Crowds of teenage supporters of the hawkish National Union/National Religious party joint list crowded the market, chanting “Tzipi is a leftie” with banners saying “Olmert will divide Jerusalem”. Their shouts competed with the drums and songs of a group of Hassidic ultra-Orthodox.
Ms Livni’s security detail quickly bundled her away after just a short stroll through the market’s narrow alleyways in which she was jostled by rightwing protesters, leaving animated stallholders to discuss her visit. Amos, a fruit and vegetable seller, said: “I wished her good luck out of respect but the truth is I still haven’t decided who I’ll vote for.”
Rachel Adato-Levy, who accompanied Ms Livni and is number 35 on the Kadima list of candidates, gave her explanation for the predicted low turnout. “People have got sick and tired of elections over the past five years or so. But hopefully people are going to vote and I’m optimistic we will win more than 35 [seats] because I’m number 35!” Later, she was told by a stallholder: “You should send five Apache helicopters and wipe out the Arabs.” His friend shouted: “You can never trust the Arabs.” Ms Adato-Levy, a doctor who is standing for the first time, realised the futility of arguing, gave a wry smile and walked away.