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Jeremy Bowen election diary

BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen's diary of the Israeli election.

11 FEBRUARY

Neither has even been given the chance to form a government yet, but both Bibi Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni are saying that they will be the next prime minister.

Kadima's election night event at a hotel in Tel Aviv turned into an out-and-out victory party. People were hugging each other, singing, even trying to dance.

An Israeli man walks beneath election posters for Tzipi Livni (R) and Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, 11 February 2009
Both the leaders of Kadima and Likud say they will be Israel's next PM

Some Kadima members in the cold light of this morning worried that they had overdone it.

At the party a big banner hung over the stage. At one end was a picture of Kadima's founder, the former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma for three years after a stroke. At the other end was Tzipi Livni.

The association with Ariel Sharon helped her campaign. He is still very popular in Israel, a link to the generation of Israel's founders.

In his last years he was seen by many Israelis as the nation's grandfather, the pillar of strength who had all the answers and made people feel safe. Today's generation of politicians look limited in comparison.

But it was another reminder that the so-called peace camp in Israel has run out of answers to voters' questions.

Kadima is running as the party who are the best hope for peace. For most of his career Ariel Sharon would not have called himself as peacemaker.

He called his own autobiography Warrior. By the end, Israelis believed he could be trusted to make peace, his way, because of his military credentials. That was an idea that Palestinians never bought.

In broadcasts in the last couple of days BBC presenters have asked many variations on a single question: at a time of huge uncertainty, what does Israel's elections results do for prospects for peace?

Many Israelis would probably turn that one round. They might say that because times are uncertain this not the moment to make more concessions to Palestinians.

These election results reflect a view held by many people here, who believe that Israel has already made many concessions to the Palestinians and had nothing good in return.

Instead rockets have been fired out of Gaza, Israelis have died and they certainly haven't had peace. They believe that if their army leaves the West Bank it could turn into another Gaza.

Against that Palestinians say that it doesn't really matter who is in charge in Israel, because the realities continue whoever is in power.

They would point out that under every prime minister since the peace process first started 15 years ago more Palestinian land has been taken for Jewish settlements. Enormous restrictions are put on their movement. They are not free.

Israel's instinct at the moment is to manage the conflict with the Palestinians, and not try to solve it. The war in Gaza has not enhanced the prospects for peace. Neither does rocket fire into Israel.

If President Obama wants to hurry things up around here, he is going to have to break through that mindset - no matter who ends up as Israeli prime minister.

10 FEBRUARY, ELECTION NIGHT
Nationalist activists on election night
Nationalist parties did better than expected on election night

As your correspondent surmised, the empty chairs at the Likud HQ showed that the leadership was expecting bad news. The exit polls, let's say this again, might well be wrong. But only a few weeks ago Mr Netanyahu was expecting a clear-cut victory, and he certainly has not got that.

When the exit polls came out, the few Likud supporters who were there were stunned into silence for a few minutes. Then when they looked at the big screens and realised that their silence was up against rejoicing at Kadima HQ they did some half hearted chanting.

Dore Gold, who was ambassador at the UN when Mr Netanyahu was Prime Minister in the 1990s advised against panic.

He remembered another close election night in 1996 when the country went to bed thinking that Shimon Peres had won, and woke up to find it was going to be Prime minister Netanyahu.

The difference then was that there was a direct election for Prime Minister. That does not happen anymore. So it is a question of who can form a coalition government. The leader with most seats will most likely get the first go.

Tonight the horse trading will already have started. This is not going to be easy.

10 FEBRUARY

Some cities are designed for the winter, and some, like Tel Aviv, are best in the sun.

So on a wet Tuesday night in February, with the surf crashing in from a stormy Mediterranean sea, the place to be was somewhere warm with a warm someone, not tramping Tel Aviv's streets looking for the meaning in this election.

A poster of Benjamin Netanyahu in a Tel Aviv street
Despite the huge posters, there is little election fever

But that's what reporters are paid to do. Tel Aviv does not look like a city gripped by election fever, because it isn't.

As I drove down an empty boulevard towards the Likud election night HQ, a big poster of the Labour leader Ehud Barak was tearing itself to pieces in the wind whipping off the beach.

He has admitted that the best he can hope for is to keep his job as defence minister in a new coalition. Mr Barak, Israel's most decorated soldier when he was uniform, seems to have reached his ceiling as a politician.

By mid evening no leading Likud politicians had turned up at their HQ, a scruffy pavilion at Tel Aviv's exhibition centre. That felt like a sign of worry.

Likud and its leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, have been in the lead in the polls for months, but at the very end of the campaign Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni, had almost drawn level.

Israelis define their politics according to their views on the conflict with the Palestinians. Many Israeli s have traditionally believed that the Arabs are not to be trusted, and that occupied land captured in the 1967 war is Israel's by right.

In other words, they're against a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel - which is the so-called two state solution. This is the essential position of the Likud party on this issue.

During the campaign Likud's leader Mr Netanyahu has often sounded ideologically rigid. But some believe that if he returns as prime minister he may be more flexible.

Kadima's Tzipi Livni supports the two state solution, and says she's the one to deliver it.

But even if Kadima get a few more seats than Likud when all the votes are counted, it may not be able to form a government.

Israel's system of proportional representation leaves smaller parties holding the balance of power. The electoral arithmetic predicted by pollsters suggests that Mr Netanyahu will end up with more potential coalition partners in Israel's parliament than Mrs Livni.

9 FEBRUARY
It was sunny and warm in the Jewish settlement of Ofra in the occupied West Bank this morning. Yoram Cohen was inspecting his vines.

He is a winemaker with a growing reputation. The wine critic of the Israel daily Ha'aretz, Daniel Rogov, recently gave him 90 points for his Cabernet Sauvignon. Most Ha'aretz readers are from the side of Israel that believes that the settlements have been a disaster for the country.

Yoram Cohen
Yoram Cohen's wine has won praise from the critics
Yoram grinned. "If I wasn't from a settlement Rogov would have given me an even higher score."

Ofra was founded in 1975. It has acquired a well-established air that makes it feel permanent. The trees are tall and thick. Gardens have well-established shrubs. You can see why many Israelis believe that the settlements are going to be here forever.

Israelis classify their political views according to what they think about the idea of exchanging land Israel has occupied since the 1967 war for peace with the Palestinians - or in the case of the Golan Heights, with Syria.

Those who believe in the idea most - who also think Israel needs to get out of places like Ofra - call themselves left-wing. Those who hate the idea are on the right, and among them, the settlers are a powerful and dynamic political force.

Yoram believes that the land was given to the Jews by God. Part of his vineyard looks a bit of a mess, because it has been the seventh year in the planting cycle and according to Jewish religious law he has let it go fallow.

Like many Israelis of all political views, even on the last day before the polls opened he wasn't sure which party was going to get his vote. He joked about it.

Yoram Cohen and Jeremy Bowen at vineyard
The vineyard is part of a settlement established in the 1970s
"My heart tells me to vote for the right-wing but my brain tells me to vote for the left because the left goes to war when we need one, and the right does the opposite of what I want."

Yoram didn't like Ariel Sharon's decision to pull soldiers and settlers out of Gaza in 2005. He said that when it came to it he would probably vote for one of the small right-wing parties.

The election, as ever in Israel, is dominated by the Palestinian issue. But no party has made a convincing case of how to deal with it.

Israelis have become very sceptical about the prospects for peace, just like the Palestinians. Years of bloodshed and failed negotiations have left big scars.

Yoram Cohen has learnt to ignore politicians.

"Thirty-five years ago Henry Kissinger told us we'd have to leave and we're still here. We're building, putting in more grapes. Politicians just talk. I get on with my life as if there isn't a question mark over it."

His wine, by the way, is excellent.

8 FEBRUARY

Israel feels as if it has developed an immunity to election fever. Not surprising, perhaps, since this country has a lot of elections.

Relentlessly negative advertising by all sides does not help much either.

Benjamin Netanyahu campaigning in the northern Israeli village of Aniam, 8 February 2009
Benjamin Netanyahu's lead in the polls has been slipping

This election feels very low key.

The first Israeli election I covered was in 1996. I seem to remember that the streets were full of posters, and crowds of youngsters from competing parties crowded round cars at traffic lights giving out leaflets and stickers.

This morning I met a leading Israeli pollster, Camil Fuchs, on the campus of Tel Aviv University.

He also does polling for Channel 10 TV and Ha'aretz newspaper. I wanted to talk about the way Israeli elections are always about war and peace.

He said they were, but this time he had not heard the parties saying much about peace. Plenty of them talked about war though.

Camil said that his polling showed that Israelis believed the war in Gaza had been inconclusive. Voters, he said, wanted to believe in peace, but did not trust the peace process, or the Palestinians.

The man who at this stage looks most likely to form a government is the leader of the Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Netanyahu says that Israel missed an opportunity in Gaza to finish Hamas. He promises to finish the job.

In the final polls the centrist Kadima party, led by Tzipi Livni, has been closing the gap on Mr Netanyahu's Likud.

But the electoral arithmetic of coalition-building is on his side. He is likely to have more allies in the next Knesset.

If Benjamin Netanyahu is not the next prime minister, it will be an upset for the pollsters.

It has happened before.

He won that election back in 1996, beating Shimon Peres by the narrowest of margins.

It was so close that the country went to sleep that night thinking that Mr Peres was going to keep the job he had inherited after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin the year before.

So when the exit polls come out after the voting ends on Tuesday, be a little cautious until the votes are counted.

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