Olmert's Kadima Party Drops in Polls

Israeli police tightened security Monday on the eve of national elections as opinion polls showed the centrist Kadima Party faltering, raising the possibility of a coalition government that may include hard-liners.

Kadima still holds a strong lead over the left-center Labor Party and the hawkish Likud Party, but polls showed that acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's party would capture only 34 of 120 parliament seats in Tuesday's vote, a drop from 36 last week.

Olmert has said he would not include parties in his coalition opposed to his plan to withdraw from parts of the West Bank and draw Israel's final borders by 2010.

Candidates spent their last day Monday campaigning, targeting swing voters who pollsters say make up about 10 percent of the electorate.

Labor leader Amir Peretz handed out red carnations in Tel Aviv, while Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu said prayers at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site. Kadima's No. 2, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, was to tour Jerusalem's main outdoor market later in the day.

In Gaza City, incoming Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh told the Palestinian parliament he is ready to hold talks with international mediators on solving the Mideast conflict. He did not mention Israel by name, but his willingness to talk to the so-called Quartet — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — could be a first sign of flexibility.

Hamas has rejected demands by the Quartet that it recognize Israel, renounce violence and recognize existing peace agreements, and Haniyeh did not explain how he would get around those disagreements.

"The government is ready for dialogue with the Quartet, and looking for every possible way to end the conflict and the occupation," he said.

Parliament was to approve the new Hamas government Tuesday or Wednesday.

On the eve of the election, police tightened security, fearing Palestinian militants would launch an attack in an attempt to influence the outcome of the vote, as has happened in the past. Traffic at West Bank checkpoints backed up, with soldiers conducting thorough checks on Palestinians.

Police also closed a hotly disputed holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem to visitors. The Al Aqsa Mosque compound, built on the ruins of the biblical Jewish temples, is a magnet for extremists. Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said Muslim worshippers would be allowed into the site, which is administered by Muslim authorities.

In Gaza, Israeli aircraft fired missiles Monday at a group of Palestinians preparing to launch homemade rockets at Israel, killing an Islamic Jihad militant, Palestinian security officials and the Israeli army said. Earlier, the air force fired missiles at a group of militants, wounding two people, Palestinian security officials and the army said.

The Israeli air force frequently launches air strikes in Gaza, aiming for top militants and cells responsible for almost daily rocket fire on Israel.

In the West Bank, an Israeli military court turned down a request for bail by militant leader Ahmed Saadat, who was snatched by army troops earlier this month from a Palestinian prison after a 10-hour siege. Saadat ordered the assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister in 2001.

The March 14 raid on the Jericho prison boosted Olmert's image as a tough-minded leader. But it angered Palestinians and embarrassed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The raid triggered unprecedented Palestinian reprisals against foreigners, because British wardens — who along with American monitors had supervised the Jericho prisoners under an unusual 2002 arrangement — left their posts just before Israeli troops arrived.

Monday's polls, the last before the vote, predicted Labor would be the second-largest party in Israel's parliament. Likud would come in third, racking up between 13-15 seats, a serious blow to a party that dominated Israeli politics for most of the past three decades.

A Dahaf Institute poll published in the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot showed Kadima lost two seats, dropping to 34; Labor remained steady at 21; and Likud dropped one to 13. The survey of 1,115 eligible voters had an error margin of 3 percentage points.

A Smith Institute poll published in the English-language daily The Jerusalem Post had Kadima pulling in 33-34 seats, Labor 20-21 and Likud 15. The poll had an error margin of 4.5 percentage points.

The hawkish Israel Beitenu, an immigrants' party headed by Avigdor Lieberman, an emigre from the former Soviet Union, is expected to make a strong showing. Polls predict Lieberman will win 12 seats, up from two he holds now.

"He's (Lieberman) not corrupt and he'll do a lot of things that Likud couldn't do and Olmert won't do," said Shimon Tubul, a 30-year-old fruit seller at Jerusalem's outdoor market.

Pollsters said turnout could be lower than in previous elections.

"I'll be at home sleeping. It's the best thing to do," said Behruz Tatush, a 62-year-old from Jerusalem who voted for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the 2003 election.

Sharon was felled by a stroke on Jan. 4 shortly after he founded Kadima and is still in a coma.

The establishment of Kadima in November shook up Israeli politics. For the first time, a centrist party has a chance of upending the two largest movements, Labor and Likud.

When Sharon established the party, it was polling more than 40 seats, but since his stroke, Kadima's strength has diminished slightly.

"Kadima's central problem ... is that it is suddenly becoming a mood party and this is not a healthy situation," said Yaron Dekel, a political analyst with Israel Radio.

Under Israel's electoral system, the leader of the largest party gets first chance to form a coalition that controls a majority of the parliament seats. Olmert could invite both moderate and religious parties into his government.

Analysts say Olmert only could be denied the premiership if hard-line and religious parties win a so-called "blocking majority" of 60 seats and agree to form a coalition.

No party has ever won an outright majority in Israel's 58-year history.