An Israeli Navy sailor takes ballot papers prior to voting at an army base in Ashdod on January 20, 2013
An Israeli Navy sailor takes ballot papers prior to voting at an army base in Ashdod on January 20, 2013. Israeli soldiers headed to the polls on Sunday, two days ahead of a general election, the military said, as politicians made last-ditch appeals before nationwide voting gets underway on January 22. © Menahem Kahana - AFP
An Israeli Navy sailor takes ballot papers  prior to voting at an army base in Ashdod on January 20, 2013
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AFP
Last updated: January 21, 2013

Parties fight for undecided voters as Israel poll nears

With less than 24 hours until Israelis vote in general elections, party leaders were on Monday campaigning down to the wire ahead of a ballot seen returning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to office.

The vote is widely expected to usher in a government which will swing further to the right, whittling away at the chances of a peace deal with the Palestinians and raising the prospect of greater diplomatic isolation for the Jewish state.

Those elected will face key diplomatic and foreign policy questions, including Iran's nuclear programme, which much of the world believes is a cover for a weapons drive, and pressure to revive peace talks with the Palestinians.

No less pressing are the domestic challenges, including a major budget crisis and looming austerity cuts which are likely to exacerbate already widespread discontent over spiralling prices and the cost of living.

For weeks, opinion polls have given a clear lead to Netanyahu, the media-savvy leader of the rightwing Likud, which is running on a joint list with the hardline secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu.

But as the day of reckoning neared, polls showed falling support for the joint list, which was seen taking 32 seats -- 10 lower than they currently hold -- or just over a quarter of the 120-seats in parliament.

With the campaign entering its home stretch, party leaders and activists fought to secure the support of the as-yet undecided 15 percent of the electorate, which press reports said amounted to 17 or 18 seats.

One of the key issues of the vote has been the public anger over the rising cost of living, with Netanyahu coming in for heavy criticism over his economic record.

In an 11th-hour attempt to sway voters, Netanyahu on Sunday night named a Likud minister known for his success in slashing mobile phone costs to the top post in the Israel Land's Administration in a move he claimed would significantly lower the price of housing.

But his opponents slammed the move as a "fig leaf" and several pundits said it was testimony to the "panic" that Netanyahu was feeling ahead of the vote.

"The prime minister did something yesterday that must not be done in an election campaign, certainly not two days before the public goes to the polls: He projected panic," wrote Yediot Aharonot.

With Netanyahu certain to return to the premier's office, the big question is the makeup of the coalition he will piece together, which was likely to include an alliance with his natural partners: the rightwing and religious parties.

Final polls released on Friday showed the rightwing-religious bloc taking between 61 and 67 seats, compared with 53-57 of the centre-left and Arab parties.

"In the next coalition, which will include Likud Beitenu, Jewish Home, Shas, United Torah Judaism and perhaps Yesh Atid as well, there will be a majority, for the first time in history, for the ultra-Orthodox and religious MPs," wrote Shalom Yerushalmi in the Maariv daily.

"This is mainly a great victory for the settlers, who have become the leading ideological force in the country."

Some 5.65 million Israelis are eligible to vote in Tuesday's elections to choose the Jewish state's 19th Knesset.

"It's the first time I'm going to vote, to cast my vote at a polling station," Jerusalem resident Yagel Shukrun told AFP.

"I really think its important that everybody goes to vote, because those who don't are actually giving their voice to parties they don't want in the first place."

Voters will be able to cast ballots at 10,132 polling stations which will open at 0500 GMT and close 15 hours later.

Security will be heightened across the country with more than 20,000 police officers deployed to secure the vote, spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

"Israeli police have heightened security nationwide and over 20,000 police officers, border policemen and volunteers are being deployed to secure the ballots and extra security measures taken to enable the public to vote at all locations," he said.

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