Israelis took to the polls in large numbers Tuesday despite bad weather and predictions of low voter turnout to decide the tight race between hawkish former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, with the far-right expected to make major gains.
More Israelis had cast ballots in the first five hours of voting on Tuesday than during the previous election three years ago defying analysts who said turnout in Israel's 18th parliamentary election could sink to a historic low.
The short campaign was overshadowed by Israel's Gaza offensive, and the key issue facing voters became which leader can best assure the security of the state while chances of a peace deal seem remote.
Far-right monitor sparks protest
Police barred an election monitor from the radical rightist National Jewish Front from entering the predominantly Arab town of Umm El-Fahm in the north following clashes between Arab Israelis and the police, according to press reports.
Dozens of Arab youth who opposed the Central Elections Committee's decision to allow far-right activist Baruch Marzel to serve as a poll monitor attempted to prevent him from entering, according to the Jerusalem Post.
"We have come to condemn the racism and this fascist," one of the demonstrators told the paper. "We want to live in peace, but we won't let any racist into Umm el-Fahm. He won't enter our home."
In advance of the election, Israel sealed off the occupied West Bank, denying Palestinians entry for the duration of the election, the army said. Police deployed thousands of officers nationwide for extra security.
Some 5.3 million voters were eligible to cast ballots in more than 9,000 schools and community centers nationwide stand to decide an election analysts dubbed as duller than past contests, with some blaming this on the fighting in Gaza and continuing rocket fire into Israel that put campaign rallies on hold for several weeks and dampened public enthusiasm.
Israeli President Shimon Peres accused the candidates of failing to address "the country's burning issues" in the campaign, during which candidates did not hold a single debate.
Yitzhak Galnoor, a political scientist, said Israelis were largely bored by the campaign because it was "filled with slogans bereft of any content."
The race could be determined by how many votes the smaller parties garner or the ballots of the 10 to 15 percent of undecided voters, pollsters said.
"The trend we've seen the last few days indicates a very close battle," said pollster Rafi Smith of the Smith Research Center. "No one has jumped ahead and it's tough to call."
Likud party leader Netanyahu, once a clear frontrunner in opinion polls, has lost ground to Livni since the 22-day assault that Israel claims was aimed at wiping out Hamas tunnels and stopping rocket attacks, both of which continue following the Jan. 18 unilateral ceasefire.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, a third prominent candidate, trailed both Netanyahu and Livni, though his poll numbers had more than doubled since the Gaza assault, which killed 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis, ended.
Livni, 50, a former Mossad agent, would become the first female prime minister since Golda Meir in the 1970s. Netanyahu, 59, a former finance minister, and Barak, 66, a former general, have also previously served in the top position.
The big surprise of the campaign has been the meteoric rise of Avigdor Lieberman, a tough-talking Soviet immigrant whose support swelled in the wake of the Gaza war as he vowed to hit Israel's enemies with an iron fist.
Mr. Lieberman-- who in the past has called for executing Israeli Arab MPs who have had dealings with Hamas-- has made "No Citizenship Without Loyalty" a central theme of his campaign.