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More than five million Israelis are eligible to vote on Tuesday in a fateful election that could decide the future borders, security, socio-economic welfare and Jewish-democratic character of the state.
Following five years of Likud rule, the Kadima Party formed four months ago by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is favored to emerge as the largest party, albeit with fewer seats than it was expected to gain before the January 4 stroke that left Sharon incapacitated and slowed Kadima's momentum.
If he heads the next coalition, Acting Prime Minister and Kadima chairman Ehud Olmert has vowed to shape Israel's borders, unilaterally if necessary, to ensure a solid Jewish majority. His main rival, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, was still insisting Monday night that the opinion polls would be disproved and that the Likud would succeed in blocking Olmert and building a rightist coalition opposed to relinquishing West Bank territory in the foreseeable future.
At the request of Sharon's family, Olmert decided not to visit him at Hadassah-University Hospital in Ein Kerem prior to the vote. At the request of security officials, he remained in his office all day Monday and did not set foot on the campaign trail.
Sharon's aides who now work with Olmert lamented about the mandates that were lost because of the absence of Sharon at the top of the Kadima ticket. They said that with Sharon at the helm Kadima could have won a landslide victory and a mandate to make serious changes.
"If Sharon were in charge, we would have gotten 50 seats," a senior official in the Prime Minister's Office said. "Everyone knew and respected him and the Russian immigrants voted for him. But Olmert is suitable and, with enough support on Election Day, he will be able to run the country."
Kadima officials said the party would have to win at least 34 seats to be able to form a stable coalition. They said that any lower result would make it difficult to form a coalition and would perhaps necessitate elections again in another two years.
"Unfortunately, [Sharon] is unable to see the realization of his dream," Olmert said. "Only a stable government, free of the blackmail of coalition politics, will be able to lead Israel forward. Only a large Kadima will be able to ensure the achievement of the shared hope that many of us have."
Perhaps even more than a Kadima victory, sources close to Olmert are hoping that the Likud will fare poorly in the race and force its chairman, Netanyahu, "to quit Israeli politics for good and move back to the United States."
Netanyahu's associates said on Monday that there was no chance of that happening. They acknowledged that Netanyahu's Likud rival, former foreign minister Silvan Shalom, would likely attempt to overthrow him, but they said that Netanyahu would resist the challenge and grow stronger until he returned to the Prime Minister's Office.
"No matter what happens on Tuesday, Bibi will not go," a Netanyahu associate said. "He received a Likud Party in shambles and no one can honestly blame him for the results of the election. There are not enough votes in the Likud central committee to topple him and it isn't going to happen."
Netanyahu himself spoke on Monday of a political upheaval that would surprise pollsters and the media and protect Israelis from the imminent danger posed by Kadima. He expressed confidence that former Likud voters would decide that they must vote Likud to guarantee the future of the party and the nationalist camp.
Meanwhile in Labor, party officials were anticipating joining an Olmert-led coalition and already talking about the next election. They predicted that Labor chairman Amir Peretz would use his experience as a senior minister in Olmert's government to defeat Kadima and return Labor to power.
According to Labor bylaws, if a prime ministerial candidate does not win an election, a new primary must be held within 14 months, but Labor leaders said that if Peretz fared well in Tuesday's race they expected him to fend off an expected challenge from former prime minister Ehud Barak.
Sheera Claire Frenkel contributed to this report.