elections voting cards 248.88 AJ.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu and Kadima leader Tzipi Livni began their day on Tuesday morning by casting their ballots in the hopes of ending their night with a victory party in the election for the 18th Knesset.
Both leading candidates expressed cautious optimism on Monday that they would emerge victorious in the election, but their associates said they expected the race to be very close and that it was possible that neither side would win decisively.
In final messages to their potential voters, delivered in meetings with top party activists and media interviews, Netanyahu and Livni stressed that the race was between the two of them and that whoever voted for a smaller party would end up with a prime minister they did not want.
"With God's help, we will win," Netanyahu said on a visit to the Western Wall Monday evening.
"Victory is at hand," Livni declared on a train ride from Tel Aviv to the Negev.
Some 5.2 million people are eligible to vote in 9,263 polling stations nationwide. Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 10 p.m. in most municipalities. Exit polls will be broadcast on the three networks at 10 p.m., but real results are not expected to be available until after 2 a.m. Wednesday, and if the race is close, perhaps not before 5 a.m.
President Shimon Peres is expected to meet with both Netanyahu and Livni after the results are published and, following consultations with the heads of the factions elected to the Knesset, to entrust one of them with forming a new government.
Netanyahu and Livni said they would form a national-unity government that would be as wide as possible, but they both hinted Monday that should the other win the race, they would not join the victor's coalition.
Livni said she expected Netanyahu to join the government if she formed it, but she all but ruled out joining if he won.
"I will not participate in a government that I am not leading and that I do not believe in," Livni said in media interviews. "I will not be a fig leaf for a path that I do not believe in. People have to know that if they vote for Bibi, that's what they will get, and they will get Shas, too."
Sources close to Netanyahu said that even if Kadima won more seats than the Likud, the size of the right-wing bloc would prevent Livni from forming a coalition. They said that even if Kadima defeated Likud, the Right bloc's victory over the Left would require Peres to let Netanyahu form the government.
"I think the Likud will win more seats than Kadima, but I am absolutely sure that the Right will win many more seats than the Left," a source close to Netanyahu said. "If the Left shrinks by 15 seats, that would be a big rejection of Kadima. Even if Livni somehow pulls off more seats than Likud, the Right will win a big victory, and [the president] won't be able snatch its victory away."
Livni's associates countered that if she won the race by one seat, it would mean that she was the choice of the public.
Channel 10 reported that Labor chairman Ehud Barak had made a deal with Netanyahu in which he agreed to prevent Livni from forming a government in return for the Defense portfolio. Kadima officials said that in such a scenario, the Left would pressure Barak to reject Netanyahu in her favor.
Barak said on Monday that if Labor did not win close to 20 seats, he would not be able to justify joining the coalition even if he were still guaranteed the Defense portfolio.
Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, whose party is expected to win more seats than Labor, has not ruled out joining a government led by Netanyahu or Livni, but the party's No. 2 candidate, former minister Uzi Landau, suggested on Monday that his party would remain in the opposition if Livni won the race.
Both Likud and Kadima have already begun contacts with smaller factions in an effort to begin the process of forming a government.
Kadima's strategists said their party was going into the election with momentum that the Likud lacked. They said they had learned from past elections that momentum was worth two or three mandates due to the boost it gave organizationally.
In an effort to restore his party's momentum, Netanyahu held a press conference on Monday with former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's son, Yuval, who once accused the Likud leader of inciting for his father's death. Rabin praised Netanyahu for his intention to unite the nation by forming a national-unity government.
But the event ended up backfiring for Netanyahu because Rabin was heckled by demonstrators from Meretz, and he later admitted that he intended to vote for Labor.
"Bibi's manipulation boomeranged on him, and he ended up scoring for us in his own goal," said the head of the Labor campaign's response team, MK Ophir Paz-Pines.