Far-right rise crimps Netanyahu before Israel vote

JERUSALEM Fri Feb 6, 2009 9:05pm GMT

1 of 2. Israel's Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu smiles during a conference in Tel Aviv, February 5, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Gil Cohen Magen

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Benjamin Netanyahu will go into Tuesday's Israeli election with centrist Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni breathing down his neck and a far-right party siphoning votes from him, according to final opinion polls on Friday.

Four polls on the last day such surveys can be published showed Netanyahu's right-wing Likud leading Livni's Kadima party by two or three seats in the race for the 120-member Knesset, down from 4-5 last month and as many as 9 seats in December. A typical poll shows Likud on 26 seats to Kadima's 23.

By contrast, the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu (Our Home is Israel), led by Netanyahu's Russian-speaking former aide Avigdor Lieberman, was on 18 or 19 seats. Just a month ago the party, which channels anti-Arab anger, was scoring around the same 11 seats it secured in a 2006 election.

Pollsters say Israelis have been turning to the right because of security worries after the war in the Gaza Strip and frustration with stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.

Whether Netanyahu, who has limited interest in talks, or Livni, who has led negotiations, secures the most parliamentary seats, neither is forecast to control even a quarter of the chamber.

That will mean weeks of coalition bargaining in which Lieberman, the Labour party of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the Jewish religious Shas party will all be major players.

By tradition, President Shimon Peres will invite the leader of the biggest party in parliament to try to form a government first. But many analysts doubt that, even if she pips Netanyahu, Livni would be able to build a majority -- her failure to do so in the outgoing parliament triggered the early election.

Many believe Barak, on the left, would rather join a cabinet led by Netanyahu than a new centrist team under Livni.

WAR DIVIDEND

With Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Kadima stepping down over a corruption scandal, Livni and Barak appear to have benefited little from the widespread support enjoyed for the government's 3-week military offensive against the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in December and January.

While Likud, which Netanyahu led as prime minister in the late 1990s, also backed the war, the main shift in votes has been to Lieberman, who has widened his appeal beyond his fellow million immigrants from the former Soviet Union to other Israelis keen to see a hard line taken against the Palestinians.

"If I am not mistaken, this will be the most right-wing election in the country's history," one of the country's top columnists, Nahum Barnea, wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

On the latest poll findings, Lieberman would eclipse Labour, the party of Israel's founders and the dominant political force of its first decades, leaving the main left-wing party in fourth place and the broader Israeli left in utter disarray.

Ben Caspit, a prominent commentator in top-selling Maariv daily, warned of dangers from Lieberman's hostility not just to those Palestinians from Gaza and the occupied West Bank but those who are Israeli citizens and make up 20 percent of the population.

"His unchecked attacks on the Arab population in Israel threaten what remains of coexistence and could create an irreversible schism between us and them," wrote Caspit.

Among Lieberman's proposals are calls for Arabs, who are exempt from military service, to prove their loyalty to Israel and to hive off Arab towns in Israel to a new Palestinian state while annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank to Israel.

He was a particularly vocal critic of the decision in 2005 by Livni's predecessor as Kadima leader, Ariel Sharon, to pull troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip. Many Israelis now agree, seeing that "disengagement" as lying at the root of the rocket attacks they have suffered from the Hamas-run enclave.

A Netanyahu-Lieberman partnership will dampen any hopes for new U.S. President Barack Obama to revive, let alone conclude, talks aimed at reaching a deal on Palestinian statehood.

Netanyahu has said he would continue the talks with a focus on improving the economic situation in the Israeli-occupied West Bank rather than tackling thorny issues like the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees.

Livni has said she would pursue the process started in 2007 by Olmert and Barack's predecessor George W. Bush. But it is hard to see much progress with a right-wing parliament.

(Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Mark Trevelyan)