Kadima confident of victory in Israeli poll

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Kadima, the party founded by Ariel Sharon five months ago, was still confident of emerging as the biggest single party in today's Israeli election after the final opinion polls showed it winning up to 36 Knesset seats.

But uncertainty over whether the party, led by the Acting Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, will seek a coalition with parties on the left or right intensified, amid evdience of a sharp rise in undecided voters and fears that the turnout could fall to an all-time low.

The polls - whose findings differed significantly - showed the much-depleted Likud, led by the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, trailing in third place with between nine and 12 seats. Labour, which is making a concerted effort to win back middle-class voters considering defecting to Kadima, was polled at between 18 and 21 seats.

The large number of floating voters, accounting for up to 28 seats, according to a Haaretz poll, means that a surprise can't be ruled out.

But three polls showed the dark horse of the campaign, the hard-right Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, whose popularity is highest among the 900,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union, at between seven and 12 votes.

Tzipi Livni, the Foreign Minister, and seen by Kadima as one of its stars, was protected by security men as she hastened away at the end of a visit to Jerusalem's traditionally pro-Likud Mahane Yehuda Market, on the eve of the election.

Demonstrators, mainly young right-wing supporters of Jewish settlements in occupied territory, had sought to block her path, shouting: "Kadima is left", and "Kadima is Hamas".

The election could well determine the foreseeable future of the occupied West Bank, with Mr Olmert committed to ceding parts of it while annexing others, including the biggest settlement blocs.

Despite this, it has been a less than exciting campaign, with the prospect that turnout could decline below the previous 2003 low of 67.8 per cent. The election has been characterised as both a belated referendum on last August's withdrawal from Gaza, and of future, partial withdrawals from the West Bank territory occupied since the 1967 war, as projected by Mr Olmert. Kadima aides have made it clear they envisage separation from the Palestinians, who would remain east of the 450-mile barrier to be completed after the election, as the party's objective - rather than peace negotiations.

Mr Olmert has indicated that without a dramatic change in Hamas's refusal to recognise Israel, he will negotiate not with the Palestinians, but with the US and with Israeli sectors, including the settlers, to draw Israel's "permanent borders" by the year 2010.

During the campaign, however, sharp questions have been raised across the political spectrum about the idea of unilaterally fixed "permanent" borders.

The polls suggest that one possible outcome, a simple Kadima-Labour coalition, could not be formed without the addition of at least one other party to make up the required 61 majority of 120 Knesset seats.

Some analysts have even speculated that Mr Olmert could instead seek a coalition with the two ultra- orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, and with Mr Lieberman's hard-right party.

Labour's leader, Amir Peretz, who is unequivocally in favour of negotiations with the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, has said that he will not join a coalition which includes Mr Lieberman, because of what he says are the latter's racist views about Arabs.

In a parallel development yesterday, Ishmail Haniya, the new Hamas Palestinian Prime Minister, suggested the possibility of talks through international mediators. He said the new Palestinian Authority was ready for talks with the quartet of the US, EU, UN and Russia, and added: "The European Union has provided a lot of aid to our people, and supported our right for freedom... We are interested in a strong relation with Europe."

But he gave little immediate clue of how he could get round the international community's bar on contact with Hamas, unless it fully renounces violence and recognises Israel.

The leading parties

Of the 31 parties Israelis can choose from, 12 appear to be within reach of seats:

* KADIMA Leader: Ehud Olmert. Wants unilateral withdrawal from parts of West Bank, annexation of others. Projected seats: 34

* LABOUR Amir Peretz. Negotiations with Palestinians, $1,000 minimum wage per month. 21

* LIKUD Benjamin Netanyahu. Opposes withdrawals. 13

* YISRAEL BEITEINU Avigdor Lieberman. Supports "ethnic division". Arabs would have to pledge loyalty to Zionism. 12

* SHAS (Sephardic ultra-orthodox). Eli Yishai. Wants social cuts reversed, with money for religious colleges. Opposed Gaza disengagement. 11

* NATIONAL UNION-NRP (religious Zionist)Benny Elon. Pro-settler and "voluntary" transfer of Palestinians to Arab countries. 9

* UNITED TORAH JUDAISM (Ashkenazy counterpart of Shas) Ya'kov Litzman. 6

* YAHAD-MERETZ Yossi Beilin. Dialogue with Palestinians. 5

* HADASH (former Communists) Mohammed Barakeh. Two states on 1967 borders; equality for Arabs and Jews in Israel. 3

* UNITED ARAB LIST (Islamist) Ibrahim Sarsour. Two states, Equality for Arabs. 2

* NATIONAL DEMOCRATIC ASSEMBLY (Israeli Arab) Azmi Bishara. Two states. 2

* PENSIONERS' PARTY Rafi Eitan. Better treatment for elderly. 2