JERUSALEM – The two front-runners in the race to rule Israel urged voters to head to the polls Tuesday to tip the scales in a surprisingly tight general election whose outcome could determine the course of Mideast peace negotiations.
Opinion polls were long predicting a decisive victory for the hard-line Likud Party, headed by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But new polls released over the weekend showed the Kadima Party, led by moderate Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, closing the gap.
After casting her vote at a Tel Aviv polling station, Livni called on Israelis to do the same despite stormy weather. "I have just done what I want every citizen in Israel to do — first of all to get out of the house, rain or no rain, cold or hot, go out, go to the polling station, go into the booth, close your eyes, and vote," Livni said.
Despite initial concerns that the weather could keep voters home, turnout by mid-afternoon was on par with previous elections, according to the Central Election Committee.
Livni was one of the architects of Israel's offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip last month and has been striving to present an image of herself as tough but sensible.
Netanyahu is portraying himself as the candidate best equipped to deal with the threats Israel faces — Hamas militants in Gaza, Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, and behind them an Iranian regime Israel believes is intent on developing nuclear weapons.
"I will do everything so that our enemies won't provoke us, won't think we're weak, won't rain down ... their rockets," he told reporters in the southern city of Beersheba, which was hit by rockets from Gaza during the fighting there. "They'll know that in Israel there's a different government, a strong prime minister who will answer with a crushing response to any attack on us."
Despite the narrow gap between Livni and Netanyahu, polls have predicted that voters will take a sharp turn to the right and elect a parliament dominated by hard-line parties opposed to territorial concessions. That would make it difficult for Livni to form a government even if she wins.
The national mood is at least partially linked to the rocket fire from Gaza that sparked Israel's recent offensive there, and to a sense among Israelis that territorial withdrawals like the country's 2005 Gaza pullout have only brought more violence.
Rami Golan, 60, a chef in Jerusalem, said Israel needed a "strong government."
"We need a strong man who knows what he wants to do. We need someone who will keep us safe," Golan said. He had yet to decide who to vote for, he said. With 33 parties running in the election, polls over the weekend showed more than 15 percent of Israelis still undecided.
Netanyahu opposes ceding land to the Palestinians and favors allowing Israeli settlements in the West Bank to expand, two points that are likely to put him on a collision course with the new U.S. administration. Livni, who hopes to become the first woman to lead Israel in 35 years, has served as chief negotiator with the Palestinians and says a West Bank withdrawal is necessary for Israel's own security.
Neither is seen getting more than 30 seats in the 120-seat parliament, however, meaning the winner will have to form a coalition with smaller parties. A fractious alliance unable to make difficult decisions could further complicate efforts to create a Palestinian state and pose a challenge to President Barack Obama, who has said he will become "aggressively" involved in pursuing Mideast peace.
In one indication of current anti-Arab sentiment in Israel, the ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party has seen its support surge in the lead-up to the election with a campaign demanding that Israeli Arabs, one-fifth of Israel's population, sign a loyalty pledge or lose their citizenship. The polls suggest the party could become the third-largest faction in parliament and play the role of kingmaker in the post-election coalition bargaining.
Five Israeli Arabs were arrested after throwing stones and scuffling with police when a hard-line Jewish candidate provocatively arrived in the Arab town of Umm el-Fahm to serve as an election observer, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. The candidate was escorted out of the town and there were no injuries, he said.
The Israeli military announced a closure of the West Bank, barring Palestinians from entering Israel except for urgent medical treatment. Such closures are routine during elections and religious festivals, when Israelis gather in public places and present a potential target for militant attacks.
Security officials are particularly wary of the possibility of an attack seeking to avenge Israel's Gaza campaign, which ended Jan. 18. About 1,300 Palestinians were killed, according to Gaza health officials, and 13 Israelis also died in the offensive, meant to halt militant rocket fire aimed at southern Israel.
Exit polls were expected soon after the polls close, with the first official results to be announced before dawn Wednesday.
If the hawkish Netanyahu garners the most votes, he will have to choose whether to form a coalition with hard-line parties or reach out to centrists like Livni. A partnership with moderate parties like Livni's Kadima and Labor, headed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, might push Netanyahu toward the middle, but it is unlikely he would agree to uproot Jewish settlements or cede partial control of Jerusalem — both necessary for peace with the Palestinians.
What Israelis want most from this election is quiet, said Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem.
"Israelis are overwhelmed by security pressures, by fear of the future, by a sense of unworthy leadership. Israelis look at the Middle East and feel the walls coming in, there are terrorist enclaves on our borders and we don't seem to have answers," he said.
"We just fought a war that we won and even that war has not stopped the missiles from falling. So Israelis look around and say, 'No one can deliver peace, no one can deliver security, who can we depend on?'"