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MARCO WERMAN: Turnout was higher than expected in Israel's general election today, but the outcome could be murky. The right wing Likud Party was the front-runner going into the vote, yet the first exit polls gave a slight edge to the centrist Kadima Party. It will be several more hours before definitive results are known and negotiations to form a new government could take weeks. The king-maker in those talks could well be Avigdor Lieberman. From Jersualem, The World's Quil Lawrence tells us that the rise of the right-wing candidate could signal the rise of the right-wing.
QUIL LAWRENCE: Avigdor Lieberman's last campaign stop was not an official one. He came here to the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site. Lieberman's campaign had alerted the news media, and he moved slowly inside a throng of photographers.
LIEBERMAN: It's for all Jews, not just for me. It's the most important place for all Jews around the world, and it's tradition to visit.
LAWRENCE: A woman shouted from the crowd, â€œLieberman, how many seats in Parliament did you ask for in your prayer?â€ He didn't answer, but the question is on everyone's mind. Lieberman emigrated from the Soviet Union when he was 20 years old, and he found a natural constituency in Israel's Russian immigrant population. Throughout his career, Lieberman has painted Arab citizens of Israel as a threat to security. He's called for all citizens to take a loyalty oath to the state. Almost a fifth of Israeli's population is Arab, and they are represented in the Parliament by a few parties. In the Arab-Israeli city of Umm al Fahm, candidate Afu Akbaria was meeting with supporters in his campaign headquarters. He says Liberman's loyalty oath is dangerously divisive. â€œIt's very fascist like Hitler during World War II. It's dangerous not just to Arabs but to other sectors of the Jewish society â€“ like the poor, or the religious. In a democratic state you're being loyal to the law, not to the state itself. â€œ But the loyalty oath has been winning over many Israeli voters. One supporter at the western wall repeated one of Liberman's campaign slogans: he's the only candidate who understands Arabic. And they don't mean he speaks the language. David Rodem says Lieberman's hard line will lead to peace.
DAVID RODEM: Lieberman is the only one who can bring peace, because of one reason: He speaks Arabic. He understands Arabic, you see, and when the Arabs will understand that he's not kidding them and he's going to crack down terror, and he's going to ask for loyalty, they will speak in another language.
LAWRENCE: Lieberman may have gotten a boost from the war in Gaza. The civilian death toll there provoked worldwide criticism of Israel, but the war was supported by all of Israel's political parties except the Arab-Israeli ones. Arab-Israeli politician Raja Eghbarieh says that shows that the Labor Party of Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud, and Tzipi Livni's Kadima Party are indistinguishable from Lieberman.
RAJA EGHBARIEH: The leaders who are making useful his ideas and his programs is the Labor party and the Likud and Livni. Those who killed our kids in Gaza is the Labor party and the Likud.
LAWRENCE: Lieberman is unlikely to place better than third in the election, but none of the mainstream party leaders has outright rejected forming a coalition with him. Members of the Likud are even afraid Lieberman may sap votes away from them and have been trying to outflank him to the right. Kati Shitrit is a Likud candidate who was also visiting the Western Wall.
KATI SHITRIT: Everyone who votes for Lieberman, take it from me. He wants to take part of Jerusalem and give it to the Palestinians, and I'm against it â€˜cause there is no end if you give up.
LAWRENCE: The complex math of Israeli politics would make it possible for a center-right coalition government to form without Lieberman, but such a coalition might be too shaky to stay power very long. If Lieberman does well in today's vote, this election may cement a rightward swing in Israel. For The World, this is Quil Lawrence, in Jerusalem.