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Donald Macintyre: It will be close, but Israel has lurched to the right

Can the centre hold? The immediate question at the heart of tomorrow's Israeli election, is whether Tzipi Livni can wrest the prize from the reborn right-wing Likud under a man widely judged to have failed when he left office as prime minister a decade ago.

In a close election, the two serious contenders are now in a fight, less against each other, than to prevent potential supporters leaking to smaller satellite parties in each of their camps, the right in Benjamin Netanyahu's case and the centre and what remains of the centre-left in Ms Livni's.

This is a fight, essentially, to beat Israel's own proportional electoral system, a system which allows smaller parties to flourish and gives them disproportionate leverage in the uneasy coalitions that every Israeli leader has to put together. A system which has created the bizarre anomaly of the pro-cannabis legalisation party, Green Leaf, teaming up with the Holocaust Survivors in the hope that together they can pass the 2 per cent threshold needed for a Knesset seat. The system has helped the semi-fascist, Avigdor Lieberman, to be a potential kingmaker in the post-election formation of a government. And it means it is formidably difficult even for a politician of the strength and vision of the late Yitzhak Rabin to realise the peace aspirations shared by most Israelis at the time.

That said, what has been an odd campaign might have been very different, one in which ideological divisions might have been highlighted rather than almost buried. Ms Livni might have projected herself, Obama-style, as a visionary stateswoman seeking a mandate to break with a recent past in which war has been the default option.

True, that was made difficult by a bloody three-week military operation in Gaza, which Ms Livni enthusiastically supported. True, too, she has in recent days dared, belatedly, to use the rhetoric of peace, telling the annual Herzilya conference last week that "the dove is on the windowsill. We can either slam the door or let it in".

Yet she has done little to suggest practical ways in which the abject failures of the negotiating process with the moderate West Bank Palestinian leadership that started with such fanfare at Annapolis more than a year ago can be reversed. She has, for example, damned, with the sourest of praise, the Saudi-fostered peace initiative which offers pan-Arab recognition of Israel in return for two states negotiated on 1967 borders, a plan warmly praised by Barack Obama in his first interview as President. Ms Livni bleakly said in Herzilya that, unless Israel developed its own peace plan, it "would get the Arab initiative".

It isn't immediately clear whether this reflects Ms Livni's deepest instincts or her apprehension about the Israeli public's lurch to the right since the 2006 elections, or both. Given that rockets are still being launched from Gaza, albeit at a vastly lesser volume, it may be that many of the Israeli people share Mr Netanyahu's view that the war in Gaza was mistakenly ended without the Hamas regime being toppled. But this is, in turn, part of a much longer process of disillusionment, nurtured by the rise of Hamas and an increasingly entrenched belief that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is too weak to be a partner. It scarcely matters that Ariel Sharon's sidelining of Mr Abbas during the resolutely unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005 contributed to Hamas's electoral success a few months later.

Just as Ehud Barak successfully grafted into the Israeli DNA the idea that Yasser Arafat was exclusively to blame for the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000, so too, Israeli public opinion has internalised the notion that its government generously left Gaza in 2005 only to suffer Hamas rocket attacks on civilians. In this context, most Israelis – while still ideally backing the notion of a two-state solution – see little chance of that happening in any foreseeable future.

It isn't even certain that the rumoured large-scale prisoner exchange for the abducted Corporal Gilad Shalit as part of a ceasefire package that would open the Gaza crossings, would help the centre and left rather than the right. But there is only a slim chance of this happening before the election.

The most hopeful sign from the polls is that most Israelis want Mr Netanyahu, if he wins, to form a broad coalition with Kadima and Labour rather than a narrow one with Mr Lieberman and the right-wing religious parties. Then, he could just be more susceptible to pressure from an Obama administration determined to bring the conflict to an end. But this is a scarcely bankable prospect. For all Ms Livni's disappointingly minimalist approach, the White House would presumably rather put her aspirations for peace to the test than have to work with Mr Netanyahu.