Israeli voters seem uninterested in peace deal with Palestinians during the election which its leaders race which one "best can be tougher against Palestinians" as Palestinians see no hope in the election, saying "all the Zionist parties are the same".
Israelis voted on Tuesday in a tight election race, with right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu bidding to oust the centrist party of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
The election comes after Israel's December assault on Gaza that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, a third of them children in the 22-day military aggression and wounded 5,300 Palestinians
The voters seem uninterested in peace deal with Palestinians during the election which its leaders race which one "best can be tougher against Palestinians".
The campaign generated little enthusiasm, and cold, rainy weather across the country increased the possibility that there would be a low turnout.
Likud party leader Netanyahu, once a clear frontrunner in opinion polls, has lost ground to Livni since the 22-day war last month. The two leaders were locked in a statistical dead heat.
"It'll be a big day. We'll have a good victory," Netanyahu said in Jerusalem where he cast his vote.
The big surprise has been the rise of Avigdor Liberman, a Soviet immigrant as he "vowed to hit Israel's enemies with an iron fist" in the wake of the Gaza assault.
With opinion polls showing Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party displacing Labour in third position, the former bouncer looks likely to play kingmaker in a coalition government.
No single party is expected to secure more than a third of the seats in the 120-seat Knesset and coalition negotiations promise to be an arduous affair.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak of the once dominant Labour party was trailing in fourth place, though his poll numbers have more than doubled since the Gaza assault.
The election could be determined by how smaller parties do. Up to 15 percent of voters were undecided in the final days of campaigning, pollsters said.
Some 5.3 million people are eligible to vote, in 9,000 polling stations nationwide.
"The trend we've seen the last few days indicates a very close battle," said pollster Rafi Smith of the Smith Research Centre. "No one has jumped ahead and it's tough to call."
Israelis vote by party, and parliament seats are allocated by proportional representation to national party lists. The party with most votes usually is called to form the government.
But it may take weeks to thrash out a new coalition deal.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the outgoing leader who quit in a corruption probe in September, would stay on as caretaker premier until a new cabinet is sworn in.
Livni, 50, formerly of the Mossad intelligence agency, would be the first female prime minister since Golda Meir in the 1970s. Netanyahu, 59, a former finance minister, and Barak, 66, a former general, have been previously as premiers.
As foreign minister, Livni has led talks with Palestinians. They reached a dead end under Olmert but U.S. President Barack Obama wants to resume the process. Netanyahu would set "tougher terms for talks".
Netanyahu, 59, has vowed that if elected he would "topple the Hamas in Gaza".
The left-leaning Haaretz newspaper said Netanyahu and Livni were not ideal candidates but threw its weight behind Livni given her support for the peace process with Palestinians --- "the most important issue at stake."
Israel has imposed the siege on the occupied West Bank, denying Palestinians entry to the country for the duration of the election, the army said.
Some 16,000 police were deployed nationwide.
Polls were due to close at 2000 GMT, with results expected early on Wednesday.
David Dorani, a 64-year-old pensioner, voted near Tel Aviv for rightwing opposition Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is bidding to oust the incumbent leader of the centrist Kadima party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
"Livni wants to give up land to the Palestinians, who are taught from an early age to hate Jews," he said. "She wants to divide Jerusalem. We have already given up land and what did it get us? They just want to get rid of us. I would be in favour of giving up land if it would bring true peace but that has not happened."
Yaacov Adani, 65, voted for Livni, who is bidding to be Israel's first woman premier since the revered Golda Meir.
"I voted for Tzipi Livni because she appears to be quite alright. The other two have already bruised our skin so I hope she will succeed," he said. The "other two" are former premiers Netanyahu and Ehud Barak of the once dominant Labour party. "I don't know how important the election really is. We were just dragged into it," said Adani, referring to early departure of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who faces corruption allegations.
Yana Vitsnudel is a 44-year-old pharmacist who immigrated from Russia 30 years ago. She also voted for Livni's party, "because it is a centrist party".
"I want to be in the centre. I want there to be peace, but also that we shall be strong," Vitsnudel said. "Every election is important."
She scoffed at the notion of voting for the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party of fellow Soviet immigrant Avigdor Lieberman, who gets a lot of support from Russian speakers.
"I've been here for 30 years already. Those who are voting for Yisrael Beiteinu are new immigrants," she said.
In Sderot, a town with a large percentage of recently arrived Russian-speakers nearby Gaza, resident Biton Tsion said "the right wing will form the government, so they can create a suitable solution for us southern residents." "Because only they can bring that solution."
Smadar, 23, a student from Jerusalem, voted for Barak's Labour, once the giant of Israeli politics.
"My family always vote labour. I took a poll on the internet and my views were most like theirs. Barak is the most experienced on defence. He is the least bad of all the candidates," she said, refusing to give her family name.
Student Amir, 28, voted for Livni. "I don't want Bibi (Netanyahu) to be prime minister. For the peace process it doesn't matter if Livni, Bibi or Lieberman is prime minister. It depends on Obama."
"We are sure that all the Zionist parties are the same; they are different faces of the same coin," said Mushir al Masri of Gaza's ruling Hamas group, hammered by Israeli military might in a January offensive ordered by Olmert, Livni and Barak.
"They are challenging us by using the bodies of our children, they are looking forward to attack the Palestinian people, to occupy the land, and to increase their aggression and kill our people."
In Jenin, in the Israeli occupied West Bank, 32-year-old trader Muntasser Badarneh, said he was losing hope.
"I spent 10 years of my life hoping there would be a peace settlement. With the situation as it is in Israel and the people there moving more towards the right, I see no hope for a peaceful settlement. Within two years, if there is no peace, I will leave the country," he said.
But Ramallah shop-owner Muna Abed Rrabbo, 43, was attentive.
"I'm very interested in the Israeli elections because the Palestinians will be affected by the results and by the policies of the new government," she said. "The more right-wing the government, the more pressure is imposed on us, more (border) closures and more violence."