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Israelis Casting Ballots To Decide Tight Race


Today is Election Day in Israel, and the vote's expected to be close. Opinion polls show a tight race between the conservative Likud Party and the centrist Kadima, but since Israel's war in Gaza last month, support has surged for the ultra-right-wing candidate, Avigdor Lieberman. From Jerusalem, NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Capitalizing on security concerns, popularity for Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu, or Israel Our Homeland Party, has soared following the Gaza offensive. Lieberman has pledged to get even tougher with militants in Gaza. He supports expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and he has assailed Israeli Arabs who make up 20 percent of the Israeli population as a treacherous force eroding the Jewish state from within. His slogan - no loyalty, no citizenship - has resonated with many on the right. Ashqelon area farmer Schmel Hashby(ph)...

Mr. SCHMEL HASHBY (Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

WESTERVELT: Didn't you see during the Gaza war how they were all protesting against us, against the state? And they get social security from us. They get all these benefits. It's outrageous.

The strong showing for Lieberman threatens to draw votes away from Likud, which is exactly what the centrist Kadima Party is hoping for. Beverly Jamil(ph) runs an electronics store in Ashqelon, a city that was pounded by rockets during the Gaza war, what she calls weeks of hell. Jamil says she's voting for the ruling Kadima Party and says she rejects Lieberman's attempt to gain power by attacking Israeli Arabs.

Ms. BEVERLY JAMIL (Business Owner): He's a racist, and I'm not racist. I don't have a problem with the Palestinian people. I have a problem with Hamas. You've got to split the two things up. Hamas are terrorists and the Palestinian civilians are Palestinian civilians; to me it's two completely different kinds of people.

WESTERVELT: Opinion polls show that some 15 to 20 percent of the electorate is still undecided. Taken together, though, the rise of Avigdor Lieberman and sustained support for Likud make it likely the next Israel governing coalition will be dominated by the right wing.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.