Ehud Olmert's centrist Kadima Party drops in opinion polls a day ahead of Israeli elections

The centrist Kadima Party dropped in opinion polls published Monday, a day before Israel's elections, a sign that it could be difficult for acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to establish a ruling coalition that will back his plan to withdraw from parts of the West Bank and draw Israel's final borders by 2010.

Kadima established by Ariel Sharon weeks before he suffered a massive stroke on Jan. 4 still holds a commanding lead over the left-center Labor Party and the hawkish Likud Party.

But if Kadima only pulls in 34 of 120 parliamentary seats, as polls predicted Monday, Olmert may have to include in his coalition hard-line parties that oppose West Bank withdrawals.

In the Gaza Strip, incoming Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was to address the Palestinian parliament later Monday, at the start of a two-day session to approve the new Hamas government. The Islamic militants control a majority in the legislature, and approval is assured.

With Hamas formally taking over, two months after its election victory, the Palestinian Authority is expected to become increasingly isolated, because the militants refuse to recognize Israel , renounce violence and recognize existing peace agreements. Israel reiterated Sunday that it would stop dealing with the Palestinian Authority and switch its focus to international aid organizations.

On the eve of the Israeli election, Israeli police tightened security throughout the country, fearing Palestinian militants would launch an attack in an attempt to influence the outcome of the vote, as has happened in the past.

Police also closed a hotly disputed holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem to visitors Monday. 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, with 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 army said. Earlier Monday, 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.

Monday's polls, the last before the vote, predicted Labor would be the second largest party in Israel 's parliament. The hawkish Likud, headed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 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 had lost two seats, dropping to 34, Labor remained steady at 21 and Likud had 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 between 33-34 seats, Labor between 20-21 seats and Likud steady at 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 with a tough-guy image, is expected to make a strong showing. Polls predict Lieberman will win 12 seats, up from two he holds now.

Running on a platform of swapping Arabs for Jews when drawing Israel 's final borders, Lieberman's strength could make it most difficult for Olmert to establish a coalition that supports his withdrawal plans, political analysts said.

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 somewhat.

"Kadima's central problem ... is that it is suddenly becoming a mood party and this is not a healthy situation," Yaron Dekel, a political analyst with Israel Radio, said. "A few weeks ago it was high, and it was the bon-ton of the elections. But time has passed and there is an erosion process, and the erosion is occurring in Kadima."

Low voter turnout and swing voters, who pollsters say make up about 10 percent of eligible voters, could change the outcome at the last minute, political analysts said.

Olmert could be denied the premiership if the hard-line parties currently polling 50 seats together rack up 60 seats. Israel 's political system allows any movement that can pull together a coalition with a majority of 61 to be the ruling party. No party has ever won an outright majority in Israel 's 58-year history, reports the AP.

D.M.

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Author`s name: Editorial Team