Israelis vote, polls predict Olmert victory
JERUSALEM, Mar 28 (Reuters) Israelis today began voting in an election that interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has called a referendum on his plan to uproot remote settlements in the West Bank if peacemaking with the Palestinians stays frozen.
Balloting opened at 0700 HRS (1030 IST) with Israeli police on their highest state of alert for possible Palestinian bombings.
Media exit polls were due to be issued immediately after voting ends at 2200 HRS (0130 HR IST).
Opinion polls have predicted Olmert's centrist Kadima party, founded late last year by Ariel Sharon before the prime minister suffered a stroke and went into a coma, will win some 34 seats, enough to form a governing coalition in the 120-member parliament.
For Olmert, a Kadima victory would represent a vote of confidence in ''consolidation'', his term for unilateral steps to set Israel's frontier by 2010 through the removal of remote West Bank settlements and strengthening of bigger enclaves.
Olmert has said the moves, seen by Palestinians as a bid to deny them a viable state and annex land Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war, would be a last resort in the continued absence of progress along a US-backed peace ''road map''.
Opinion polls published in the home stretch of a lacklustre election campaign forecast the centre-left Labour Party led by former trade union chief Amir Peretz will take second place, with about 21 seats, making it a likely coalition partner.
The right-wing Likud party, headed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was touted to take some 14 seats.
Israeli right-wingers, who failed to stop a withdrawal of settlers and soldiers from the Gaza Strip last year that then-Likud chief Sharon championed in a reversal of policy, said removing more settlements would reward Palestinian violence.
But unilateralism could appeal to many Israelis worn down by a five-year-old Palestinian uprising and concerned by the crushing victory the Islamic militant group Hamas scored in January's election in the West Bank and Gaza.
FATE ''It is a plan to determine our own fate if there is no peace partner on the Palestinian side,'' Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz of Kadima said in election eve comments on Israel's NRG Internet site.
A policy of unilateralism could spell the end of the road map, which envisaged a cessation of violence and the start of mutual steps leading to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
Neither side has carried out its commitments under the blueprint sponsored by the ''Quartet'' of Middle East peace brokers the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.
According to the Haaretz newspaper, as many as 28 seats would be determined by undecided voters. Many of them were believed to be torn between Kadima and Labour, analysts said.
Looking ahead to a Kadima victory, coalition-building and Israel's next election due in four years' time political analyst Hanan Crystal said on Israel Television: ''Olmert's biggest test will be ensuring the party wins a second term.'' Tuesday's ballot will be the fifth in a decade in Israel, where no party has ever won enough votes to form a majority government on its own and coalitions are often narrow and fragile.
REUTERS SB RAI1115