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Race Tightens as Israeli Election Approaches

Likud and Kadima are in a neck-and-neck race to be the next Knesset’s largest party, according to the latest Haaretz-Dialog poll.

The poll, the last to be published before next Tuesday’s election, showed the gap between the two parties continuing to narrow: It is now down to only two seats in Likud’s favor. In contrast, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party continues to surge: The latest poll, which surveyed 1,000 people — double the usual number — showed it winning 18 seats, up from 15 last week. If this forecast proves accurate, Labor will be relegated, for the first time in its history, to the fourth-largest party, with only 14 seats.

The close race between Likud and Kadima has finally injected some long-overdue excitement into the campaign. A few weeks ago, Likud seemed to have victory sewed up. Now it is in real danger of losing out to Kadima.

But when it comes to forming a coalition, Likud still has a clear edge over its rival: Even in the unlikely event of Lieberman choosing to throw his support behind Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni rather than Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu, the only coalition Livni could form would be highly unstable. And without Lieberman, she has no coalition at all.

Over the course of the campaign, both Likud and Kadima have lost seats. Likud, however, has lost more, mainly to Lieberman – in part thanks to Kadima’s vicious attacks on Netanyahu. Netanyahu therefore plans to spend the last few days before the election in a major drive to win these votes back, primarily by warning that a vote for any smaller rightist party increases the chances of Kadima becoming the largest party and being given first crack at forming a government.

With regard to the overall right-left split, however, the right has maintained a consistent edge throughout the campaign. The latest poll gives the leftist bloc only 54 seats, including eight for the Arab parties, which would not actually be included in any government – and which dislike Livni as much as they do Netanyahu. The rightist bloc, in contrast, has 66 seats. This gives Netanyahu a choice of four possible coalitions: an exclusively rightist-religious one (which he does not want), a rightist-religious one with the addition of Labor, a rightist-religious one with the addition of Kadima, or a government with both Labor and Kadima plus a few smaller parties.

However, if Likud indeed wins fewer than 30 seats, none of these configurations would be stable: Likud would have little ability to impose its own agenda, and the coalition might well fall apart swiftly. As a result, Likud officials are already up in arms about the mismanaged campaign, and even if the party wins, the knives are liable to come out afterward.

Fully 29 percent of respondents said they had not yet decided who to vote for. The real rate, according to the poll’s supervisor, Prof. Camil Fuchs of Tel-Aviv University, is probably closer to 15 percent. That is still equivalent to 18 seats – theoretically enough to radically change the outcome of the vote. However, most of the movement is likely to be within blocs rather than between them, meaning the rightist bloc will still probably emerge with an edge.

This may be why, despite the increasingly close race between Likud and Kadima, most of the public remains convinced that Likud has the victory sewed up. Only 30 percent of respondents said they want Netanyahu to be the next prime minister. But 64 percent said they think he will be.

If Yisrael Beiteinu does become the third largest party, Lieberman will be able to demand a senior ministerial portfolio for himself – defense, finance or foreign affairs. Labor, in this scenario, would not be able to veto the larger party’s participation in the government, which is why Labor chairman Ehud Barak has been careful to say that he does not rule out sitting in a coalition with Lieberman. With only 14 seats, however, he is likely to have trouble overruling members of his party who would prefer to have Labor remain in opposition.

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