Israelis decide future of West Bank occupation by referendum

Israelis voted Tuesday in a historic election seen as a referendum on the future of the West Bank , with the leading candidate, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, promising to pull back from most of the territory and draw Israel 's final borders by 2010. Barring an unexpected surge by hawkish parties, Israelis were expected to give a green light to Olmert's proposal to separate from most Palestinians after 39 years of military occupation.

Israel began the "disengagement" process last summer with its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, but Tuesday's vote marked the first time a candidate has laid out a concrete vision for the future of the West Bank . "This is perhaps the most important election in all of Israel 's life," said Mordechai Aviv, 76, of Jerusalem . "We are going to separate between us and the Arabs. This is very important for us to continue having a Jewish state."

Polls opened at 7 a.m. (0500 GMT) and were to close at 10 p.m. (2000 GMT), to be followed immediately by exit poll results broadcast by the three main TV stations. Final unofficial results were expected early Wednesday. Election Day is a state holiday in Israel , where many of the 8,276 polling stations serving 4.5 million voters are set up in schools. Despite warnings of low turnout, voting appeared to be brisk in some locations.

Rafi Friedman, a resident of the Tel Aviv suburb of Kochav Yair, voted as soon as the polls opened before rushing off to the airport for a business trip. "Voting is not just a right. It's a duty," he said. Security was extremely tight, with some 22,000 police and border police patrolling Israel 's frontier with the West Bank , particularly around Jerusalem . The military had sealed off the West Bank and Gaza two weeks earlier, barring all Palestinians to prevent possible attacks by militants.

Pollsters predicted that Olmert's centrist Kadima Party, founding in November, would win the most votes, well ahead of the center-left Labor Party and the right-wing Likud. However, an unusually large number of voters said they were undecided, and pollsters said large fluctuations were possible.

Success for Kadima has been defined as winning at least 35 of 120 seats in parliament. The party, which Olmert took over after its founder, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, lapsed into a coma following a stroke on Jan. 4, has been polling around 34 seats in recent days, several seats less than it won in polls in recent months.

In Israel 's electoral system, the leader of the largest party is asked first to try to form a ruling coalition. No party has ever won a majority in parliament. The shape of Olmert's government whether stacked with moderate or more hardline parties could well determine how far he can go in carrying out his plan. Olmert has said he would only invite parties that back his plan, but might be forced to seek other allies if Kadima gets fewer seats than expected. Labor, in favor of territorial concessions, was expected to win around 20 seats, and Likud, which wants to keep most of the West Bank , was polling at 14 seats.

Israel captured the West Bank , home to about 2.5 million Palestinians ,in the 1967 Mideast War. Under Olmert's plan, Israel 's partially completed West Bank separation barrier, expected to swallow about 8 percent of the area, would become the new border within four years, with some alterations. Settlement blocs on the Israeli side of the barrier would be beefed up, while tens of thousands of settlers living on the other side would be uprooted from their homes.

"We will determine the line of the security fence, and we will make sure that no Jewish settlements will be left on the other side of the fence. Drawing the final borders is our obligation as leaders and as a society," Olmert wrote Tuesday in an op-ed piece published in the Yediot Ahronot daily, once again laying out his vision. Joined by his wife Aliza, Olmert cast his ballot near his Jerusalem home. Smiling for a crowd of TV cameras, Olmert slowly slipped the ballot into the box, then embraced his wife. "Go and vote ... That's the most important thing. The whole of the Israeli nation. Go and vote," Olmert said.

In all, 31 parties were competing, and about a dozen were expected to clear the 2 percent-of-the-vote threshold to enter parliament. During the campaign, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu had warned that unilateral pullbacks simply bring Hamas closer to Israel , and Labor leader Amir Peretz complained that the Kadima approach kills prospects for peace talks with the Palestinians.

Peretz, a former union leader, has promised to narrow the nation's growing gap between rich and poor. Peretz was casting his vote in his hometown of Sderot, a working-class community in the southern Negev Desert . Before heading to the polling station, Peretz visited a friend and supporter, Pirha Hermel, an 85-year-old survivor of the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz .

"This election campaign had four central messages," columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in Yediot. "One, we need to continue to separate from the (Palestinian) territories and to dismantle settlements. Two, we need to narrow social gaps. Three, the country is ripe for a new, civilian leadership. Fourth,corruption must not be permitted to go on like this.

Yediot's front page carried photos of the three leaders on their last day of campaigning _ Peretz distributing red carnations in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu putting on a skullcap and placing a hand on the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, and Olmert enjoying an impromptu private concert with a popular Greek singer. At an Arab summit in Khartoum Sudan , Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appealed to voters Monday.

"We hope that the Israeli voters will direct their vote to peace, for parliament members who are looking for peace, who want peace, because there is no future for us and for them, there is no security for us and for them without peace," he told The Associated Press.

But Sharon 's main legacy was to plant the idea that Israel need not wait for a formal peace treaty to separate from the Palestinians, and his stand-in, Olmert, has positioned himself as the man most likely to make that happen. With Kadima considered the clear front-runner, the election campaign was described as the dullest in Israeli history, reports the AP.


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