JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israelis voted on Tuesday in a tightly contested election between right-wing leader Benjamin Netanyahu and the centrist Kadima party of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
The election was not billed as a referendum on whether to carry on talking peace with the Palestinians. But the security of the state following the January war with Hamas in Gaza and the future threat from militant Islamists was a paramount issue.
Once a clear frontrunner in opinion polls, former prime minister Netanyahu, who staked out his ground as a hawk, has lost ground to Livni
The far-right party of Avigdor Lieberman has also prospered in a campaign overshadowed by the war in Gaza, in which 1,300 Palestinians were killed and 13 Israelis lost their lives.
“It’ll be a big day. We’ll have a good victory,” Netanyahu said in Jerusalem, before zipping around the country to see supporters.
Livni led peace talks with the Palestinians on a two-state solution, which stalled last year but which U.S. President Barack Obama wants to resume. Likud party leader Netanyahu has been cooler on ceding occupied territory to Palestinians.
One TV channel cited a poll showing 30 percent of voters were still undecided on the eve of the ballot.
The weather was grim, with storms sweeping up from the coast to the Jerusalem heights, but by 4 p.m. fears of a record low turnout were being put to rest. Some 42 percent of voters had cast ballots, more than the 2006 election, said TV reports.
Exit poll projections of the result were due at 2000 GMT.
Livni was also charged-up by the race.
“Rain or no rain, cold or hot, go to the polling booth and decide who to vote for, not out of despair but out of hope,” she told voters at one of several stops during the day.
Livni, 50, who once worked for the Mossad intelligence agency, would be the first female prime minister since Golda Meir in the 1970s.
Netanyahu, 59, a former finance minister and premier, and fourth placed Labour Party leader Ehud Barak, the 66 year-old former general and current defence minister, also served previously as premiers.
Ultra-rightist Lieberman, a potential spoiler for Netanyahu, has soared in the polls. His Yisrael Beiteinu party pledges to get tougher with Palestinians, including Israeli Arab citizens, and keep Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.
“Rain is a blessing,” he said. “Israel needs a lot of rain. I guess our people will come out and vote even if there’s a hurricane.”
In an incident highlighting rising tensions between Jews and Arabs, police moved quickly to prevent a clash between visiting ultra-rightist lawmaker Arieh Eldad and residents of Um al-Fahm, whisking him out of the Arab town.
Barak has enjoyed a rise in popularity since the Gaza war and some supporters believed he would surprise the country. But polls indicated Labour could slump to the its worst showing.
Barak also toured voting booths, reminding Israelis that Labour was the only genuine left-wing party in the race.
Israelis vote by party, and parliament seats are allocated by proportional representation to national party lists. The party with most votes usually is called to form the government.
But it may take weeks to thrash out a new coalition deal.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the outgoing leader who quit in a corruption probe in September, would stay on as caretaker premier until a new cabinet is sworn in.
The left-leaning Haaretz newspaper said neither Netanyahu nor Livni was ideal but endorsed Livni because she supports peace talks —- “the most important issue at stake.”
Underscoring the enduring conflict, Israel closed the doors to the occupied West Bank, denying Palestinians entry to the country for the duration of the election. Some 16,000 police were deployed nationwide for extra security.
In Gaza, Palestinians said they were sure it would make no difference to their lives whoever won. And in the West Bank there was no sign of any strong hope that the right result would quickly revive the peace process.
Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem