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Israel Election Guide: Can Netanyahu be stopped?

This post originally appeared on haaretz.com.

Can Benjamin Netanyahu's cruise to the premiership be scuttled? Can Avigdor Lieberman's juggernaut be run off the road at the last moment?

The answer, if current polling trends hold, is yes - but from the standpoint of coalition realities, it appears that only one of them can be blocked in his drive for power, not both.

For months, Netanyahu has been treated as a shoe-in. For weeks, meanwhile, commentators have agreed that Lieberman is the story of this election campaign. But in a nation where tabloids have to compete with day-to-day life for sensationalism and drama, stories alone do not translate to votes, and no one knows better than Netanyahu - who overcame a 20 percentage point deficit in 1996 to defeat Shimon Peres for the premiership, that there is no such thing as a sure thing.

As the order of the tables below suggests, it remains true that when a new government is sworn in about a month from now, Netanyahu will likely be the prime minister and Lieberman his key coalition partner. But the variables in the coalition-forming process are as numerous as the record number of parties, 33, on the ballot this time around.

One striking example, as investigative reporter Mordechai Gilat noted in the Israel Hayom daily last week, is a growing uncertainty over a long-simmering police investigation into Lieberman's activities. Arguing politically motivated police harassment, Lieberman has turned the criminal probe to electoral advantage.

Lieberman loyalists maintain that if Netanyahu is serious about stability as a major criterion for coalition building, he will have little option but to welcome a seat-rich Yisrael Beiteinu into the government. But if Gilat is correct, the case against Lieberman could give Netanyahu, or any potential coalition leader, second thoughts.

"If, nonetheless, Netanyahu and Livni insist upon shooting themselves in the foot and attaching Lieberman to the government, they will be forced to bid him farewell within five to seven months," Gilat wrote. "Lieberman is apparently cornered; the noose is already around his neck. Some depositions abroad have already been completed, and two will soon take place in two nations overseas."

Other scenarios envision the possibility that Lieberman could be a partner to a Netanyahu-free government. [See Dark Horse, below]

The real story of this election may well prove to be the undecided vote, which has been conservatively estimated at a whopping 20 percent of the electorate, representing no fewer than 24 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. This, at a time when polls show that no individual party, even Netanyahu's survey-leading Likud, may win more than 25 or 26 seats.

The enormous potential of the undecided vote - along with the opacity of the candidates' declarations - has thus given new meaning to the term "secret ballot." No one knows how many voters will show up, switch sides in the polling booth, or stay home.

The bottom line: If Kadima and Labor gain even a modicum of strength as the finish line nears, and the Likud weakens, the effect on the futures of Netanyahu and Lieberman could be telling.

COALITION CALCULATOR:

[Numbers expressed are in Knesset seats expected to be won by parties, as predicted in a weighted average of six polls released at the end of the week. Number of Knesset seats needed for majority is 61. Not included was a Livni-led center-left coalition, which could expect only 45-59 seats.]

NETANYAHU-LED RIGHT-CENTER COALITION

LIKUD / NETANYAHU 26

YISRAEL BEITEINU / LIEBERMAN 19

LABOR / BARAK 15

NATIONAL UNION + JEWISH HOME 6

_______

TOTAL: 66

WITH SHAS: 76

NETANYAHU-LED LIBERMAN-FREE COALITION

LIKUD / NETANYAHU 26

KADIMA / LIVNI 24

LABOR / BARAK 15

TOTAL: 65

WITH SHAS: 75

DARK HORSE: LIVNI-LED COALITION

[IF KADIMA EDGES LIKUD]

KADIMA / LIVNI 25

YISRAEL BEITEINU / LIEBERMAN 19

LABOR / BARAK 15

SHAS 10

TOTAL: 69

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