- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

JERUSALEM — Support for acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party showed signs of eroding yesterday on the eve of parliamentary elections, which have been cast as a referendum on a proposed unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.

A pair of last-minute polls showed Kadima winning 34 of the 120 seats in the legislature, a drop of two to three seats from previous surveys. Shortly after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke in January, polls indicated that the party he established with Mr. Olmert would surpass 40 seats.

Kadima’s position as front-runner does not appear to be threatened, but with just 34 seats Mr. Olmert would have less leverage to insist that coalition partners support his plan to fix Israel’s final borders unilaterally.

“It’s hard for voters to get excited by a party that promises unilateral withdrawal, which means giving away something for nothing,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem research institute.

“When Sharon was promising unilateral withdrawal, the public could at least think that its basic security interests were being protected. With Olmert, they don’t have that confidence.”

Despite Mr. Olmert’s dramatic proposal, which would turn over most of the West Bank to a new Palestinian government led by Hamas militants, the election campaign was described as anemic.

Pollsters foresee a drop in voter turnout. The number of undecided voters is higher than usual because the Kadima party, formed late last year, is causing voters on both sides of the political spectrum to rethink their loyalties.

A low turnout is expected to hurt Kadima the most while benefiting smaller special-interest parties, whose supporters have higher levels of political commitment.

“There is a tendency over the past election campaigns of shrinking turnout and we are concerned about it,” said Kadima campaign strategist and former Sharon confidant Eyal Arad.

As the security alert was heightened, the parties used the last day of campaigning to stump for votes.

Kadima No. 2, Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, waded into Jerusalem’s open-air produce market where she was heckled by right-wing supporters who called her a leftist.

Labor Party leader Amir Peretz handed out red carnations to passers-by on a central boulevard in Tel Aviv. Holding out hope for an upset, Labor candidate Yuli Ofer said the election is difficult to predict because of the large number of undecided voters.

By contrast, Likud has been struggling to avoid being surpassed by smaller right-wing parties, analysts say. Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu paid a visit to Jerusalem’s Western Wall, using the gigantic stones of the ancient Jewish Temple as a backdrop to make the argument that only Likud could prevent a division of Jerusalem by Israeli doves.

“The elections are not just a fight for security; they’re for Jewish heritage. When we start to divide Jerusalem, we don’t know where it will end,” he said. “The stone that protects everything is the Likud.”

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