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Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert voting on March 28 (epa) PRAGUE, March 28, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Opinion polls have consistently shown that voters in today's parliamentary elections are likely to hand the largest number of seats to the party of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who remains comatose following a stroke in January. The party, Kadima (Progress), has been campaigning on promises to move ahead quickly with unilateral Israeli efforts to separate from the Palestinians.

The vote comes just
weeks after Palestinians handed the largest number of seats in their
parliament to the Islamic militant group Hamas, which refuses to
recognize Israel's existence.

Unilateral 'Consolidation'

Ehud Olmert, who has been interim Prime Minister since Sharon's incapacitation two months ago, was campaigning in Jerusalem on March 27. And, as usual, he was telling potential voters that Kadima would use a victory in the parliamentary elections to push ahead with its policy of "consolidation."

That means continuing Sharon's unilateral steps to create separate Israeli and Palestinian states. Sharon notably began that process with the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip, an operation completed in September 2005.

Olmert has promised to follow up with more withdrawals, this time on the West Bank. At the same time, he plans to annex major Jewish settlement blocks and, likely, parts of east Jerusalem.

The result would be a permanent border between Israel and the West Bank by 2010 and a physical security barrier separating the two sides.

The argument carries enough weight that the latest opinion polls predict voters will give some 34 of the Knesset's 120 seats to Kadima. If so, that would put Kadima in the kingmaker's position to form the next ruling coalition.

Many Choices On Ballot

But the election is far from decided in advance. People heading to the polls in Jerusalem today expressed many other preferences than Kadima.

"We are going to vote," one man told Reuters. "At least I believe that she will vote with me, for the religious party, Mafdal [National Religious Party]. Because we believe if it's a Jewish state, you need the right people to protect, and to continue the idea of Jewish education -- maybe to emphasize it -- to strengthen the Jewish values of this country."

Another man said he still had not made up his mind. "No idea," he said. "I would like a new guy to come up and be better than the other guys."

Kadima, whose supporters range from the center-left to the moderate-right, faces its toughest challenges from right-wing parties. They include Sharon's own former Likud party and Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home), a party which draws heavily on immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Both say Kadima would give up too much territory to the Palestinians.

'Representatives Who Want Peace'

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas called today for Israeli voters to choose to return to the peace process instead of taking unilateral steps.

"We hope the Israeli voters choose to go in the direction of peace, and toward representatives who want peace, and to vote for them," he said on his arrival in Khartoum for today's Arab League summit. "Because there is no future for them, or for us, without peace."

The host of the summit, Sudanese President Omar Beshir, criticized Israel for what he called punishing Palestinians for voting for Hamas. "From this podium, I am calling on the international community and especially the [Middle East] Quartet to double their efforts, to let Israel comply with the repeated Arabic calls for peace, particularly those of the Beirut agreements [a 2002 call by Arab countries for Middle East peace]," he said.

Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniyah called on March 27 for renewed dialogue with international mediators to try to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Haniyah, in a speech to Palestinian legislators, said his future government is ready to work with the Middle East Quartet -- comprising the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations -- to bring peace and stability to the region.

However, he did not say whether Hamas would recognize Israel as part of such efforts.
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