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Israelis voting in election that may move country to right

JERUSALEM mdash; Israeli voters battled blustery winds and rain showers Tuesday as they cast ballots to choose a new government that's expected to tilt toward the right.

Conservative former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party were the commanding favorites for most of the campaign, but dwindling support in the waning days made the outcome unpredictable.

Netanyahu's flagging support could end up giving the edge to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the ruling Kadima Party, which is more closely aligned with President Barack Obama and his hopes of quickly pushing new Middle East diplomatic initiatives.

Even if Livni wins more seats in parliament than Netanyahu, however, she faces a daunting challenge in convincing rival parties to join her in a coalition government.

To lead a new government, the next Israeli prime minister must win backing from political leaders representing at least 61 of parliament's 120 members. No party is expected to win more than 25 seats.

Livni's inability to form a new coalition last October set the stage for Tuesday's elections. That could mean that even if she squeaks through and wins more seats Tuesday, Netanyahu may end up leading the next government. Then the question centers on whether he'd establish a center-right coalition or a broader unity government. Netanyahu said Monday that he favored the latter.

"I vow to establish a wide unity government so as to deal with the security and economic challenges," he told a news conference with Yuval Rabin, the son of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

A leftist political activist heckled Rabin for appearing with Netanyahu.

"Your father would be ashamed," the heckler shouted at Rabin, whose father was shot dead in 1995 by an extremist Jewish settler after a peace rally in Tel Aviv.

Rabin said Monday that he'd vote for his father's Labor Party, which is led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak and was lagging in fourth place in the polls.

Barak might have expected a political boost after leading the military during its recent punishing 22-day offensive in the Gaza Strip, which killed more than 1,300 Palestinians.

Many Israelis came away disenchanted, however. Some thought that Israel should have toppled the militant Islamist group Hamas, which controls Gaza. Others wondered whether the toll in innocent Palestinian lives had been too great.

Barak has said that he won't stay on as defense minister for Netanyahu unless Labor wins around 20 seats in parliament.

"Only a strong Labor could be the answer to the right-wing bloc," Barak said Monday.

The biggest wild card in Tuesday's race is Avigdor Lieberman, the hard-right political leader whose late surge in the polls could make him a central power broker in coalition talks.

Lieberman, whose campaign centered on a proposal to strip Israelis of their citizenship if they refuse to take a new loyalty oath, was expected to win more seats than Labor and become the third-largest party in parliament.

That could make it difficult for the next prime minister to form a ruling coalition without making Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) party a central part of the team.

Lieberman's rise has alarmed members of Israel's Arab minority. He's long cast doubts on the loyalty of Arab-Israeli leaders and has called for executing those who've met with Israel's enemies.

His message resonated with a weary Israeli public that's looking for a fresh face.

"Lieberman is a protest vote. They want someone new," said Eytan Gilboa, a government professor at Israel's Bar-Ilan University. "What is a surprise to many is that he attracts young people who don't trust the old politicians."

As voters headed to the polls, Livni sought to lure more support with a final, optimistic appeal printed Tuesday in Israel's newspaper Maariv.

"We have never let our enemies defeat us, and I have no intention of letting people at home exploit the fear and the things that separate us and to take hope away from us," Livni wrote.

"Each one of you can, through a simple act, join this hope and vote," she wrote. "It is so close, and it depends only on us."

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