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A look at top PM candidates in Israel's election

Saturday, February 07, 2009

By The Associated Press

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A look at the leading candidates to be Israel's new prime minister:

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BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Hawkish former prime minister, tagged by opinion polls as front-runner, presents himself as a leader who will not be seduced by dreams of peace into letting down his guard against Israel's enemies.

Netanyahu, 59, promises to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank and says a peace accord with the Palestinians is impossible now. He argues Israel should instead try to boost the Palestinian economy while continuing its military occupation indefinitely.

Still, he is not an unbending ideologue, unlike many in his Likud Party, and was seen by some to have displayed some pragmatism during his run as prime minister in 1996-99.

Netanyahu, who lived in the U.S. as a child and speaks fluent, American-accented English, says he knows how to maintain Israel's vital strategic relationship with Washington. But his policies could put him on a collision course with President Barack Obama's new administration.

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TZIPI LIVNI: Leader of the governing centrist Kadima Party, she is the foreign minister and has overseen a year of negotiations with the Palestinians that showed little visible progress on the ground.

Livni, 50, has campaigned as the best hope for bringing peace while promising to take a tough line toward Palestinian militants. Although she lacks the battlefield credentials of her male rivals, she was one of the architects of Israel's offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

As a young woman she worked for the Mossad spy agency, and was a corporate lawyer before entering politics.

Livni was elected to head Kadima in a closely fought primary in September, replacing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is stepping down to fight corruption charges. A victory would make her Israel's second female leader after Golda Meir, who served from 1969 to 1974.

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EHUD BARAK: Defense minister in the outgoing government, the Labor Party chief hopes to reclaim the premiership he briefly held a decade ago, campaigning on an image burnished by last month's fighting in Gaza.

Born on a communal farm in 1942 to Holocaust survivors, he spent 36 years in the army, becoming Israel's most-decorated soldier and the military chief of staff. He joined the government under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and in May 1999 he ousted Netanyahu as prime minister.

Barak has boosted his image with the Gaza campaign, but he is considered a long shot to come out ahead in the race to be prime minister. Labor was long the dominant party in Israel, but its popularity has slumped since Barak's peace talks with the Palestinians collapsed into prolonged violence in 2000.

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AVIGDOR LIEBERMAN: An immigrant from Moldova who was once a marginal political player, he has seen his support surge. In what could be a dramatic upset, pre-election polls show his Yisrael Beiteinu party ahead of Barak's venerable Labor.

Lieberman has centered his platform on attacking Israel's Arab citizens, demanding they sign an oath of loyalty or lose their right to vote or be elected. Perhaps his most polarizing policy is to redraw Israel's borders, pushing areas with heavy concentrations of Arabs outside the country and under Palestinian jurisdiction.

Lieberman appears to be capitalizing on a swell of hard-line sentiment among Israelis, fueled partially by the rocket fire from Gaza that sparked Israel's recent offensive there.

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