Israelis vote, West Bank settlements at stake
Jerusalem, Mar 28: Israelis voted today in an election seen as a referendum on uprooting settlements from swathes of the West Bank and enlarging others, imposing Israel's final borders with Palestinians if peacemaking remains frozen.
Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose centrist Kadima party is expected to win, aims unilaterally to dismantle remote settlements by 2010 and move thousands of dislodged settlers to bigger blocs on occupied land Palestinians want for a state.
Some 20,000 police and volunteers were on patrol to guard against possible Palestinian bombings as Israelis voted.
In southern Israel, two Israeli Arab shepherds were killed in a suspected rocket attack from Gaza while a Palestinian militant was killed by Israeli troops in the West Bank, underlining the entrenched conflict.
Opinion polls have shown Kadima will win some 34 seats, enough to form a governing coalition in the 120-member parliament. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon founded Kadima last November before he suffered a stroke and went into a coma.
Unilateralism appeals to many Israelis worn down by a five-year-old Palestinian uprising and concerned by the rise to power of Hamas in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after the Islamist militant group won elections in January.
''I hope we can reach a peace deal with the Palestinians, at the very least separate ourselves from them. We have no other choice,'' said Hanan Yoran, 43, after voting in Tel Aviv.
Israelis were voting a day after Hamas presented its cabinet to the Palestinian parliament for approval, showing no sign of softening its stance on the Jewish state. Hamas is formally sworn to Israel's destruction.
Media exit polls will be issued after balloting ends at 10 p.m.
For Olmert, victory would mean approval of ''consolidation'', hi term for the go-it-alone steps he plans should Hamas refuse to recognise Israel, disarm and accept interim peace accords. The World Court has ruled that all settlements are illegal. Israel disputes this. ''These elections will determine the state's character, its borders and moral identity,'' elder statesman and Kadima candidate Shimon Peres said after voting.
Palestinians condemn Olmert's proposal, saying it would destroy any prospects for peace and deny them a viable state by grabbing land Israel occupied in the 1967 Middle East war.
One Hamas official said all major Israeli political parties were hostile toward the Palestinians.
''We will confront whatever is the result of the election by uniting against the occupier and against the Israeli aggression ...
by all possible means,'' said lawmaker Mushir al-Masri.
The trauma for settlers of any withdrawal from land they see as a biblical birthright could dwarf that of last year's Gaza pullout, which Sharon championed in a reversal of policy.
Some 60,000 West Bank settlers could be affected by Olmert's plan, far more than the 8,500 removed from Gaza. Around 240,000 Israelis live among 2.4 million Palestinians in the West Bank.
Israeli right-wingers say removing more settlements would reward and encourage Palestinian violence.
Opinion polls published at the close of a lacklustre but high-stakes campaign showed the centre-left Labour Party running second, with about 21 seats, making it a likely coalition partner for Kadima.
The right-wing Likud party was touted to take some 14 seats.
Turnout by 2 p.m. was 30.9 percent of registered voters, a low figure but close to recent polls. Analysts say turnout could be crucial in deciding the shape of a coalition government.
Olmert's policy of imposing Israel's borders on its own terms is incompatible with a peace ''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 fulfilled its commitments under the plan sponsored by the ''Quartet'' of Middle East mediators -- Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations.
In Khartoum, Arab leaders at an annual summit promoted an offer of peace with Israel in return for land. They also rejected unilateralism and called for a return to peace talks sponsored by the Quartet.