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Israel is selecting a new government, its fifth in a decade, at a fateful time, with the country facing stiff security and economic challenges due to on-going Palestinian terrorism, plus the threat of a US-led military campaign to disarm Iraq.

Yet despite the hard times, few voters are blaming Sharon and he is expected to accomplish an unusual feat. Even though five Israeli leaders have served two or more terms at the top, Sharon is set to join the late Menachem Begin as the only sitting prime minister returned to office.

Latest polls out on Monday have his Likud list capturing somewhere between 30 to 33 Knesset seats in tomorrow?s balloting, almost double its Labor rival and virtually assuring Sharon the right to form the next government under Israel?s cabinet/parliament system.

Labor is holding steady at 18-19 mandates, quelling fears it was about to be eclipsed by the militantly secular Shinui party as the second largest faction in the legislature. Shinui (14-16 seats) is now scrambling to come in third ahead of Shas (10-13), the main target of its anti-haredi agenda.

The right-wing National Union and leftist Meretz factions are projected to win 8 to 10 seats each. Yisrael B?Aliyah is showing a late surge in some polls and could grab as many as 6 seats, after The Jerusalem Post endorsed Natan Sharansky?s party last Friday.
Meantime, the National Religious Party and United Torah Judaism will likely garner 4 to 5 seats, while a trio of competing Israeli Arab factions should combine for 8 to 10 slots.

Am Echad, supported largely by union workers, is polling at 2 seats, while two other factions, the pro-marijuana Green Leaf party and the ultra-nationalist Herut, are on the verge of passing the 1.5 percent threshold needed to make it into the Knesset.

Another dozen or so parties are vying for the remnant of votes among the 4.7 million strong electorate, but will likely fail to meet the threshold requirement.

Though some 10% of voters are still undecided, the latest polling results should prove fairly accurate and will give right-wing parties 63-66 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, with the Left and the Arab parties receiving 38-40 seats and the center parties claiming 16-18 seats.

While the Right has enough mandates to form a narrow coalition government, Sharon has indicated that he prefers to join forces with the Labor party rather than to create a narrow right-wing government, since far-right parties hope to block his ability to negotiate the terms for a future Palestinian state.

But Labor leader Amram Mitzna has campaigned in recent weeks on a firm pledge not to join a Sharon-led government, and party luminaries Shimon Peres and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer ? who both served until recently in just such a coalition ? have now come out publicly backing Mitzna?s position.

Many political activists and analysts say pressure will build on Labor, nonetheless, to join a broad unity coalition, especially if a war heats up in Iraq in coming weeks. Shinui leader Tommy Lapid in particular will be prodding Labor to unite with him and Sharon in a government of the center, since Shinui needs to go beyond being a protest movement this time and find a place inside the government. But it has vowed to boycott any government with ultra-Orthodox partners, thus reducing its options with Sharon.

In the waning days of the campaign, Likud for the first time has openly targeted voters leaning towards Shas, NRP and the National Union, warning them that only by voting Likud can you strengthen Sharon?s hand.

Likud officials are suggesting that Sharon will give a victory speech late Tuesday that invites Labor once more to join hands with him in time of national crisis. Then he will have to await Labor?s internal squabbling and perhaps purge of Mitzna, while securing coalition deals with his most natural allies of NRP and Yisrael B?Aliyah. Before long, Sharon?s choices will then come down to the religious factions of Shas and UTJ, or Shinui and perhaps Labor?s hawkish wing.

Following are abstracts on the main parties involved in Tuesday?s balloting that have a realistic chance of passing the 1.5% threshold:

Likud ? secular, center-right Zionist party headed by incumbent prime minister Ariel Sharon; traditional heart of nationalist camp still opposes offering Palestinians a state, but trusts Sharon to lead future negotiations; Tends toward free market economics.

Labor ? socialist, center-left party chaired by Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna; after shepherding Oslo debacle, now favors unilateral separation from the Palestinians, removal of settlements; retains socialist idealism on economic matters.

Shinui ? militantly secular faction led by Yosef ?Tommy? Lapid; calls for end to inequitable funding of ultra-Orthodox, seeks to be a bridge between Likud hawks and Labor doves.

Shas ? Sephardi, ultra-Orthodox party headed by Eli Yishai; presents itself as defender of poor, discriminated Middle Eastern Jews, constituency hawkish on Palestinians.

Meretz ? Leftist list led by Yossi Sarid; ultra-doves favoring withdrawal to 1967 borders.

National Union ? combined list of native and Russian immigrant super-hawks under Avigdor Lieberman; opposes Palestinian state and Israeli withdrawals from territories.

Yisrael B'Aliyah - Immigrant rights? party led by Natan Sharansky; promotes Jewish and democratic state, new appeal to Anglo voters, calls for democratizing Palestinian/Arab society.

National Religious Party ? religious Zionist faction headed by Effi Eitam; supports settlements, maintaining religious status quo.

United Torah Judaism ? Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox faction led by Meir Porush; Favor strict religious control of certain ministries, government functions.

United Arab List ? Arab nationalist faction led by Abdulmalik Dehamshe; supports Palestinian state, increased funding for Arab sector.

Hadash ? Arab rights? faction led by Mohammed Barakeh; supports Palestinian state, equal rights for Arab minority.

Balad ? Arab nationalist party led by Azmi Bishara; supports Palestinian nationalism, cultural autonomy for Israeli Arabs.

Am Echad (One Nation) ? Unionist list headed by Amir Peretz; promotes socialism, workers? rights.

Herut ? Ultra-hawks led by Michael Kleiner; pushing to encourage Palestinian migration from territories.

Ale Yarok (Green Leaf) ? New radical left led by Boaz Wachtel; Legalize marijuana and prostitution, ultra-dovish.