Exit polls suggest Israel taking center line

iReporter Daniel Dreifuss captured the scene as Israelis headed to the polls in Jerusalem.
Early exit polls showed a surprise narrow lead for the centrist Kadima party as voting ended in Israel’s elections Tuesday, Israeli television networks reported.

Kadima, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, appeared to have an edge over the conservative Likud bloc led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But CNN correspondent Ben Wedeman and Israeli political analysts warned that exit polls had been wrong in past elections. Pre-election opinion polls had suggested that right-wing parties may benefit from Israel’s recent military campaign in Gaza. It was Livni’s inability to form a ruling coalition last year that prompted Tuesday’s vote. Kadima’s partner in the current coalition, the Labor Party, appeared to be running fourth in Tuesday’s elections, with the exit polls indicating that the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party is in third place. No single party is expected to win an overall majority in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, so whoever wins the most seats still faces the challenge of building a governing coalition. Livni took control of Kadima in September, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stepped down as the party leader amid several corruption investigations. Livni has given herself a tough war image. Her television advertising focuses on the military assault and statements about not allowing the Palestinian fundamentalist group Hamas to decide Israel’s fate. Kadima member Machman Shai told CNN: “(Livni) was attacked from the right and the left. They said she was not capable for the job — very chauvinistic. And I think it was all wrong. She is a leader and up to leading Israel in the years to come.” According to opinion polls held in the final days of campaigning, Kadima was closing the gap on Netanyahu’s Likud.

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“The majority of the people want a windfall,” Netanyahu said Tuesday while casting his ballot. “They want a change of direction to security, honor and hope, and I think they will vote for this today.” Livni hoped the weather would not dampen turnout. “Rain or no rain, cold or heat, you must come to the polling booth, stand behind the screen and consider whom to vote for,” she said. “This isn’t a storm. Rain just makes you wet.” About 5.2 million people were eligible to vote, choosing from 33 parties, with polls closing at 10 p.m. (3 p.m. ET). According to the Central Election Committee, 62.5 percent of eligible voters cast ballots — about 2 percentage points higher than the country’s last elections, in 2006. Will a new leader make any difference » This year, the election was expected to largely determine which Israeli parties should take the credit for the recent war in Gaza. iReport.com: See photos of the scene as voters head to the polls Despite international condemnation over the high number of Palestinian civilian casualties, it was a popular war in Israel. Domestic support was strong throughout, especially among residents within Palestinian militant rocket range, and it was perceived in Israel as a success. Polls showed that could bode well for Israel’s right-wing parties. A government needs a controlling majority of 61 in the 120-seat Knesset. Neither Likud nor Kadima is expected to reach even half of that figure. The next prime minister will have six weeks to form a coalition government. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, head of the Labor Party, also hoped for a sizable boost from the three-week Gaza war. But it probably will not be enough to lead the government. Before the operation, Labor was tipped to win just eight seats. That doubled in some polls, albeit briefly. A small number of rockets are still falling in southern Israel, and that could play into the hands of Netanyahu. He was not in a position of power during the war, but he has sought to capitalize on his opposition to Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, telling voters that he warned the move would result in Palestinian militant rockets hitting major cities. At the time he was ridiculed by his political rivals; his supporters say he has been proven right. A party even further right-wing than Likud is Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, which recent polls show was gaining strength. Lieberman’s party could gain six seats if it performs as well as recent polls suggest, taking it to 17 seats. That would take it past Labor as the third largest faction in the legislature.

If Lieberman’s party surpasses Labor, the founding party of the Jewish state, it would be unprecedented. Lieberman, 50, is a polarizing figure whose party has been accused of racism against Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel.