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Israeli Voters Undecided on Election Eve - 2003-01-27

Israeli voters go to the polls Tuesday to elect a new parliament, which will in turn decide the make-up of a new government. Opinion polls show the right-of-center Likud Party of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is the strong favorite. But Likud is not expected to win an outright majority, so a coalition government is all but inevitable.

An unscientific sidewalk survey at two different shopping malls in Ra'anana, just north of Tel Aviv, echoes what the opinion polls are saying about Israeli voter sentiment. When asked who they intend to vote for there is strong support for Ariel Sharon - Arik, as he is nicknamed - and his Likud party, but there is also support for other parties, including the right-wing religious party Shas. And there is also a good deal of indecision.

None of this should come as a surprise. Ariel Sharon's pledge to do whatever it takes to ensure security goes down well with most Israelis, as does his hard-line policy against the 28-month-old Palestinian uprising.

But there is also support for many of the 25 other parties that have fielded candidates for the parliament. And that means even if Likud comes out on top, as everyone expects, it will most likely have to find coalition partners in order to form a new government.

There are 120 seats in the Knesset, as the parliament is called, so any party with a 61 seat majority would, in theory, have enough to form a government made up entirely of its members. But that has not happened since the state of Israel was founded in 1948 and it's not expected to happen now.

Likud is expected to win something like 30 seats. So its leader, Ariel Sharon, will likely have to form a coalition and with more than one party since none of the others is expected to win more than 20 seats.

It has been said that a small percentage of voters, maybe no more than four or five percent, determine the outcome of Israeli elections. They are the undecided, the swing voters. Some of them this time around will be like Sarah, a retired woman from Ra'anana, who used to be a staunch Labor Party supporter but is not so sure she will be this Tuesday. "It's the first time in my life - and I'm more than 70 so you can imagine - I just don't know. I cannot make up my mind." she said.

Sarah, who did not want to give her last name, says that the Labor Party leader, Amram Mitzna, is untried and not the man for the job.

Ha'aretz newspaper columnist Akiva Eldar says he is hearing that opinion a lot, even from Labor Party activists. He says their candidate comes across as an uncertain commodity, something that cannot be said of Ariel Sharon.

"If you're on a lonely island and you can make only one telephone call and you have to choose between the incumbent Sharon, who has been there for awhile, and you know what you're going to get, experience, so on, or Mitzna who is enigmatic and unexperienced, at the end of the day you will call someone that you know," said Mr. Eldar. "Even if he has [committed] mistakes, you will give him another chance because you will not take the risk. If you have only one coin you will not take the risk to put it on someone who has not been able to prove that he can make it."

But Mr. Eldar points out that not even that kind of support is likely to win enough seats to build a new government without the support of other parties. The last government, a so-called national unity government, that brought Likud and its main rival Labor together, lasted only 20 months. This time Labor leader Mitzna has ruled out joining Likud in another coalition.

When, as expected, Mr. Sharon's begins a search for coalition partners, he may have to look elsewhere. He has never been happy with the religious right - whose policies he views as too extreme -- so maybe this time around he may try to bring a more centrist group, perhaps the secular Shinui party, into his government.

Whatever the case, many analysts are saying the political campaign has been rather lackluster and the election outcome is predictable. They say the interesting time will begin on Wednesday, when the battle to form a working coalition begins.