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Israeli Poll Seen as Referendum on Netanyahu.

By VOA News, &

Israelis are preparing to go to the polls Tuesday to elect a new parliament. No party is expected to win more than one-fourth of the seats. As a result, the focus is on whether right-wing groups or left-wing parties can win enough votes to form the next coalition government.

Opinion polls released Friday - the last day for polling allowed before the election - show the prime minister's Likud party trailing by several seats behind a center-left alliance led by the opposition Labor party.

Netanyahu urged supporters to turn out in force, saying the size of the gap among the parties vying to lead the country can be a decisive factor in who will form the next government. "This is a fateful struggle; it's a close struggle," he said. "We must close this gap."

Key Players in Israel's March 17 Parliamentary Election: BINYAMIN NETANYAHU: Popularly known as "Bibi," 65-year-old veteran is seeking fourth term as prime minister as head of right-wing Likud party; ISAAC HERZOG: Co-leader of center-left Zionist Union, Herzog, 54, is lawyer who has headed Labor Party since 2013;

TZIPI LIVNI: Co-leader of center-left Zionist Union with Isaac Herzog, Livni, 56, served as justice minister and chief peace negotiator with Palestinians.

YAIR LAPID: In 2013 election, his centrist Yesh Atid party came second behind Netanyahu's Likud. Lapid is 51; NAFTALI BENNETT: 42-year-old far-right Jewish Home party head was 2013 surprise success; advocates annexation of much of occupied West Bank; AYMAN ODEH: 40-year-old Arab candidate remains obscure to most Jewish Israelis; party he leads, Joint Arab List, is gaining momentum in polls; MOSHE KAHLON: A former communications minister, Kahlon, 54, formed a new centrist party, Kulanu [All of Us], in January; AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN: Israel's Moldovan-born foreign minister, 56, leads ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party; it ran jointly with Likud in 2013 election.

A center-left alliance led by Labor leader Isaac Herzog has surged in the final days of the campaign. Herzog told supporters at an earlier rally that after six years of Netanyahu-led governments, it was time for a change. "We must come together. We must unite and work together to succeed. And we will win because it's either us or him," said Herzog.

Neither Netanyahu's Likud party nor Herzog's Zionist Union alliance is expected to come close to winning the 61-seat majority needed to form the next government. As a result, both sides are jockeying to attract the support of smaller parties ranging across the political spectrum from communist to orthodox Jewish.

Hebrew University Prof. Abraham Diskin noted that 12% of voters are undecided, and they could determine the outcome. "All the right-wing parties combined do not have a majority. All the left-wing parties combined do not have a majority. And in the center we have two parties,"said Diskin, adding that two relatively new centrist parties have been gaining ground and could determine which side forms the next government.

For the first time in history, four Arab-led parties have joined forces. The polls indicate their Unity List could win enough seats to make it the third largest party in parliament. Its leaders say they could back a left-wing government - or in the case of a national-unity government of both the right and the left - they could lead the opposition.

Despite the accusations of several MKs, Labor-Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni's last-minute dropout as premier is not due to "pressure" and is not a "ploy," Livni and party chairman Yitzhak Herzog insisted Monday night. "It's really not due to last-minute pressure," Herzog stated on Channel 2. "Today Livni told me very gently, 'if the rotation agreement is an obstacle to the establishment of a government in any way, I will not stand in the way."

If anything, Herzog opined, Netanyahu's response indicates "a very big panic," and that ultimately, "the good of the State of Israel is above all" other considerations.

Herzog also hinted that talk about a unity government is "nonsense." Earlier this week, he told Walla! News that he would not join a unity government under Netanyahu, but would allow Netanyahu to join his own government.

Livni reiterated that the move was "not a tactic" and that despite the choice to abdicate, she is still "together" in terms of leadership with Herzog for the party. "We're going together, the agreement between us still exists," she said. "This is not a tactical move [. . .] the two of us, we have created a partnership that became historic for this unnecessary election, and I made it clear that we had to do everything we could to replace Netanyahu, and to replace him the rotation will not be a stumbling block."

Earlier Monday, Netanyahu - echoing the concerns of several MKs - opined that the move reflects the untrustworthiness of Livni and Herzog. "This just proves how necessary it is to close that gap and win," the Prime Minister stressed.

"Two things are evident: the first is that they are lying - either that they lied before or they're lying now. The second thing - they are unable to handle the pressure. If they can't withstand the pressure of the polls, how will they be able to handle international pressure?" Netanyahu pondered.

Netanyahu, in a final bid to shore up right-wing support ahead of a knife-edge vote on Tuesday, said he would not permit a Palestinian state to be created under his watch if he is re-elected.

Having previously hinted that he would accept a Palestinian state, Netanyahu reversed course on Monday, citing risks that he linked to the regional spread of Islamist militancy. He said that if he is re-elected, the Palestinians would not get the independent state they seek in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. "Whoever moves to establish a Palestinian state or intends to withdraw from territory is simply yielding territory for radical Islamic terrorist attacks against Israel," he told the Israeli news site NRG. Asked if that meant a state would not be established if he remained prime minister, he said: "Indeed."

On the final day of campaigning Monday, Netanyahu visited Har Homa, a Jewish development in east Jerusalem that is viewed as an illegal settlement by the Palestinians and the international community.

Netanyahu vowed to preserve Jerusalem's unity "in all its parts" and said he would "continue to build and fortify" the city to prevent any future division. "Come home," he told disaffected Likud supporters. The choice is symbolic: the Likud led by me, that will continue to stand firmly for (Israel's) vital interests, compared with a left-wing government... ready to accept any dictate," he said.

Netanyahu promoted the establishment of Har Homa in 1997, in defiance of deep-seated international opposition, after he was first elected prime minister. "I thought we had to protect the southern gateway to Jerusalem by building here," Netanyahu said, with a construction site behind the podium as his backdrop. "There was huge objection, because this neighborhood is in a location which prevents the Palestinian (territorial) contiguity."

Despite the gap in polls, the numbers do not necessarily rule out Netanyahu's chances of forming the next government after Tuesday's election but have rattled the Likud, which began the campaign all but assured that it would stay in office.

In recent days it has been on a get-out-the-vote blitz with Netanyahu warning against the rise of a left-wing government in a series of interviews and before tens of thousands of hard-line supporters at a Tel Aviv rally organized by the right on Sunday evening. "This is a fateful struggle, a close struggle. We must close this gap. We can close this gap," Netanyahu said to roaring applause at the rally.

Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said Netanyahu's comments were "dangerous" and could plunge the region into violence. "This is the real Netanyahu," she said. "From the beginning, he was attempting to carry out a grand deception by pretending to be in favor of the two-state solution. But what he was actually doing on the ground is destroying the chances of peace."
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Publication:Israel Faxx
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Mar 17, 2015
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