The victor in Tuesday's nationwide parliamentary vote is widely expected to be the Kadima (Forward) Party, representing the legacy of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But the real cliffhanger is how well vote-getters like Avigdor Lieberman will fare.
Hefty, direct, and assertive, Mr. Lieberman addressed a standing-room only crowd at the municipal theater here recently - a mark of popularity in an election season that many seem to find as appetizing as day-old falafel.
Part of that enthusiasm comes from the fact that he speaks in the mother tongue of most of his supporters: Russian. About 1 in 4 voters in this coastal city is a new immigrant from the former Soviet Union. This polyglot of newcomers, known as "Russim," now make up at least 15 percent of the electorate, compromising one of the most influential voting blocs.
So far, he and his nationalist party Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) look likely to garner a significant enough chunk of the vote to make him an attractive coalition partner for Kadima, led by Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Lieberman has been the season's most avid headline grabber. And if he joins the coalition-to-be, he expects Kadima's platform to bend toward his own. "I think our plan is better than Kadima's," he says. "I cannot understand what could be achieved from Kadima's plan."
By Kadima's plan, he means Mr. Olmert's proposal to carry out an additional set of unilateral withdrawals from occupied land - this time, in the West Bank. Olmert says he would annex major settlement blocks, evacuate many others, and declare Israel's part to end the conflict done, using the controversial security barrier as the de facto demarcation line between Israelis and Palestinians.
While that will not likely be deemed acceptable by any of the other parties involved, Lieberman's plan lurches into more problematic territory.
He says he would transfer to Palestinian control a swath of territory in the Galilee region that is heavily populated with Israel's Arab citizens, and will in turn annex large areas of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, such as Ariel or Maale Adumim. The subtext is that Lieberman views the nearly 20 percent of Israelis who are Arab as Israel's primary threat.
In Lieberman's plan, any Arabs who wants to remain in Israel will have to move out of the high-concentration areas surrounding the northern city of Umm el-Fahm to another part of the country. He also proposes that they be required to sign a pledge of allegiance to the state by the age of 16, accepting its Zionist principles.
Left-leaning politicians say they're not sure Lieberman's proposals are even legal. More vocal critics regularly call him racist and fascist.
But his views have won solid support among Russian voters. About 35 percent of the Israeli electorate born in the former USSR is expected to vote for him. By comparison, Kadima is expected to get 30 percent of the Russian vote, while the Likud party looks likely to win just 14 percent.
"In my eyes he's the most appropriate politician to be prime minister. His platform really matches my views," says Ksenia Kravitz, a university student who immigrated here from the Urkraine.
Another supporter spells out a common theme: A desire to line up behind a strong personality. "We want a real leader," says Igor Gurevich, who moved here as the Soviet Union began to crumble in 1989.
In the past, he voted for a Russian immigrant group that has since merged itself into the Likud party. But the longer the immigrants are here, the less they want to vote for any party that is explicitly ethnic. "I don't want to be in a Russian party," Mr. Gurevich says. "I want an Israeli party, and Lieberman is building that."
Russian immigrants who came to Israel after 1989 have a tendency to vote right-wing - anything that smacks of socialism brings back memories of Red Square.
Their most pressing problems remain socioeconomic; many educated people were unable to find work in their fields after moving here. Others complain of discrimination and stigmatization at the hands of Israeli officials. On the whole, most are secular, and constantly face problems with personal issues such as marriage and burial, as the Israeli Rabbinate doesn't recognize many of the newcomers as Jewish by religious law. Civil marriages, for example, are not allowed, and many Russian immigrants demand that their leaders fight for this issue.
The negative experience means that Russian voters here are less interested in the party than the personality - one of many reasons Lieberman has attracted so much support.
"Russians really vote for the person, not the party," says Lazar Kaplun, who, as the head of Kadima's Russian headquarters in Haifa, is trying to convince voters to switch over. "We try to explain to them that Kadima's the ruling party and that it's the only one that can bring us to a new reality, while these others will just come and go."
But his challenge, he readily admits, sitting and strategizing with other activists in the final days of the campaign, is that no other party has a figure who is viewed as equally charismatic.
Beyond Lieberman, several other right-wing parties look likely to draw away support from Kadima.
The Likud party, which has been Israel's most powerful rightist party since the 1970s, is predicted to come in a distant third. But many voters who have told pollsters in the past that they were undecided have turned up as 11th-hour Likud voters, and the party knows it, judging from one of its simple slogans: "Come Home."
Hagay Lober, from the West Bank settlement of Beit El, says that he's usually voted for the National Religious Party (NRP), long a bulwark of the settlement movement. Now, however, many settlers are disillusioned by the party's failure to impede Sharon's disengagement plan last year.
"People trusted them a lot before the last election," says Mr. Lober, who is a rabbi and a director of a religious theater troupe. The pullout from the Gaza Strip has left many former settlers jobless and without permanent homes, he notes, and some people are so dismayed they don't want to vote at all.
"It's caused a disengagement from the army and the state. It's a huge crisis for the whole country," he says. He says he might vote Likud "so I can push Olmert to partner with the right."
Even further along the spectrum is politician Baruch Marzel, who has roots in the outlawed Kach Movement founded by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. His party was banned from running for Knesset on the grounds that it was blatantly racist, something Mr. Marzel - an American-born settler - has managed to avoid.
In the settlement of Ofra, near the Amona outpost that was violently dismantled, Russian immigrants Chaim and Tanya Briskin sat on a bench recently and watched the youngest of their 11 children play. Their 18-year-old son is under house arrest for being involved in the clashes - during which 220 people, most of them young protesters, were injured. Gabriel, 11, says he and his friends are carving bats to fend off the next attempt by the army.
"We're voting Lieberman," says Mr. Briskin, an electrician. "We voted for other right-wing parties in the past, like Likud, and they went in a completely different direction from what we expected - to the left."