Politicians make final pitches on eve of Israel election

Polls give Zionist Union solid lead over Likud

JERUSALEM - Israeli politicians made their final pitches for votes Monday on the eve of an election that will decide the fate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after six years in office.
With polling stations due to open at 0500 GMT on Tuesday, Israel's political elite fanned out to pin down wavering voters ahead of an election which experts agree is likely to be a referendum on the Netanyahu years.
Netanyahu has based his campaign solidly on security issues, notably the Iranian nuclear threat, giving short shrift to the economic issues which have played a central role in campaigning by the centre-left Zionist Union and several other parties.
Final opinion polls published late last week put the Zionist Union, headed by opposition leader Isaac Herzog and former peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, ahead with 25-26 seats with Netanyahu's Likud taking 20-22 in the 120-seat Knesset.
Sunday saw Netanyahu make overtures to the centre-right Kulanu party, which is largely expected to play the role of kingmaker, offering the finance portfolio to its leader Moshe Kahlon who dismissed this as "spin".
Netanyahu later addressed a mass rightwing rally in Tel Aviv, attended by around 20,000 people, and warned again of the "real danger" to Israel's security and to the status of Jerusalem if the Zionist Union were elected.
On Monday, he was in Har Homa, a settlement neighbourhood of annexed east Jerusalem, to drive home the message that only he would keep the city united.
Although the polls give the Zionist Union a solid lead over Likud, experts warn about their reliability, pointing to the 2013 election when they completely failed to predict the level of support for centrist newcomer Yesh Atid.
"In all previous elections we had considerable differences between the predictions of the public opinion polls and (the results)," said Professor Avraham Diskin, a political scientist from Jerusalem's Hebrew University.
"Yesh Atid didn't get more than 10 or 11 seats in the public opinion polls and finally got twice as many -- 19 seats."
The leader of the party which secures most votes does not necessarily become the next premier -- as in 2009 when the centrist Kadima party then headed by Livni effectively won the vote but lost the election in a race which brought Netanyahu to power for a second term.
"In 2009, it was quite clear that the leader of the second largest party (Netanyahu's Likud) had a 100-percent chance of forming a government while the leader of the largest party, Tzipi Livni, had no chance whatsoever -- and therefore she was not nominated," Diskin said.
Under Israel's complex electoral system, the task of forming a new government does not automatically fall to the party with the largest number of votes, but to the MP or party leader with the best chance of cobbling together a coalition with a parliamentary majority of 61.
Throughout his campaign, Netanyahu has repeatedly accused Herzog and Livni of being ready to abandon Israel's claim to Jerusalem as its indivisible capital in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
"The important thing is to keep a unified Jerusalem," he told Channel 2 news before going to Har Homa, a controversial settlement neighbourhood on Jerusalem's southern outskirts where building began in 1997 during his first term as premier.
Israel occupied Arab east Jerusalem with the rest of the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War and later annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community. The Palestinians claim it as the capital of their future state.
Since taking office for the second time in 2009, Netanyahu has repeatedly defied international condemnation to build in eastern Jerusalem -- something that he accused his rivals of opposing.
But Herzog dismissed Netanyahu's claims he would be weak on Jerusalem, pledging on Sunday to "safeguard" the city "in actions, not just words, more than any other leader".
In a separate development, former prime minister and Labour leader Ehud Barak came out in support of Herzog, calling him "experienced and responsible" and someone who could be relied upon to ensure Israel's safety.
Likud quickly hit back, recalling the 1999 election when Barak defeated Netanyahu and took over as premier, with Herzog serving as government secretary.
"Barak and Bougie (Herzog) are joining forces again, like they did in 1999, to bring about a leftwing government of withdrawals, concessions and dividing Jerusalem," it said.
"Last time it ended with the second Intifada and buses exploding in the heart of Israeli cities," Likud said of the bloodshed which began in 2000 and continued until 2005.