Israeli campaigning closes as polls open

Original source: The two hawkish front-runners in the race to rule Israel made last-minute appeals to voters on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is stepping down over corruption charges, called the snap elections after hardline Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni failed to cobble together a coalition government.

Opinion polls have for months predicted a decisive victory for the right-wing Likud Party, headed by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But new polls released over the weekend showed that Ms Livni's Kadima Party, which has been described as 'Likud Lite,' was closing the gap.

Neither Likud nor Kadima is willing to withdraw to pre-1967 borders, nor do they accept the right of return for Arab refugees expelled from their land in 1948.

While Mr Netanyahu is in favour of expanding illegal zionist settlements in the West Bank, Ms Livni has acknowledged that a West Bank withdrawal is necessary for Israel's security.

Neither is expected to get more than 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament, meaning that the winner will have to form a coalition with smaller parties.

The ultra-right Yisrael Beiteinu party has seen its support surge in the lead-up to the election on the back of a campaign demanding that the one-fifth of Israelis who are Arab sign a loyalty pledge or lose their citizenship.

The polls suggest that the party could become the third-largest faction in parliament and play the role of kingmaker in post-election coalition haggling.

Right-wing parties are expected to win some 55 per cent of the vote, while Israel's left parties - Labour, Meretz, Meimad-Green Movement and the Hadash alliance - are on track to win a quarter of Knesset seats.

Analysts predict that the social-democratic zionist Labour Party, once the biggest Israeli party, will gain 14 seats, the lowest in its history.

Some 250 Arab artists, writers and intellectuals have signed a petition calling on the Israeli-Arab public to vote for Hadash, which includes the Israeli Communist Party.

Hadash prioritises achieving a 'comprehensive and stable' peace based on two states on 1967 borders, protecting workers' rights, developing social services and winning equality for Israel's Arab population.