Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (pictured) has picked up the Kadima party of the disgraced outgoing premier, Ehud Olmert. Yet the centrist candidate has slipped behind the right in a campaign dominated by the issue of security.
Hawkish former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears well placed to head next Israel's government but the surge of a far right-wing party has stirred unease within his conservative Likud.
An opinion poll out on Wednesday showed Likud winning 27 of the 120 mandates in the Knesset, four more than Kadima, the ruling party of Netanyahu's main rival, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Latest voter surveys ahead of the February 10 elections have been consistent in showing Likud clinching a few more seats than its centrist rival.
Underscoring his hawkish credentials, Netanyahu vowed on Wednesday to topple the Hamas movement in Gaza, calling the Islamist group an Iranian proxy force in the region.
"In the end of the day there will be no choice but to remove the Iranian threat in Gaza," Netanyahu told the annual Herzliya security conference north of Tel Aviv.
"If I'm elected, the biggest, most important task of my government will be to fend off the Iranian threat in all aspects," he said. "It will oblige us to work on all fronts, including harnessing the US administration to stop the threat."
The major campaign surprise in recent weeks has been the rapid rise in popularity of the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu (Israel is Our Home) party of tough-talking former bouncer and Soviet immigrant Avigdor Lieberman.
The opinion poll published by the Maariv daily on Wednesday credited the far right-wing party with 17 parliamentary seats, as compared to the 11 mandates it currently holds.
This would mean that Yisrael Beitenu, which first entered the Knesset 10 years ago with four seats, would share third position in parliament with the Labour party of Defence Minister Ehud Barak that ruled Israel for more than half of the Jewish state's 60 years of existence.
The poll, conducted by Teleseker among 700 eligible voters and with a margin of error of two mandates, showed Netanyahu would be able to put together a right-wing coalition with 66 mandates.
But the former prime minister has made it clear he favours a national unity government that would include Labour and Kadima, the main parties in the current government.
The rise of parties to the right of Likud has stirred unease within Netanyahu's party.
"If Likud does not have a strong majority in the next Knesset, it won't be able to form a stable government," MP Yuval Steinitz told Israel's army radio.
"It is crucial that Israel should have a stable government in the face of the grave political, security and economic challenges" which it will face, Steinitz added.
Yisrael Beitenu's surge has been nibbling away at Likud's lead over Kadima, something the media says has prompted Netanyahu to campaign more aggressively after what has been a comparatively low-key campaign.
"There is a great deal of pressure because of the votes that are slipping away to Lieberman. This situation has caused Netanyahu to go out into the field a lot, everything was organized on the spur of the moment," Maariv quoted a senior party figure as saying.
The snap election was called when Livni failed to form a new government coalition after taking over from scandal-plagued Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as Kadima leader in September.
Her efforts collapsed in October after the religious Shas party said it would not join a new government because Livni rejected its budgetary demands and refused to pledge not to discuss the future of Jerusalem with the Palestinians.
The political uncertainty has effectively frozen the Middle East peace process that already had made little tangible progress since it was relaunched in November 2007 following a seven-year hiatus.
Date created : 2009-02-05