About four million Israelis began voting in the special elections for prime minister Tuesday as more than 7,500 polling stations started opening around the country at (0500 GMT), reported Haaretz newspaper in its online edition.
Some 15,000 soldiers, police and security guards have been deployed to ensure order at polling stations, said the paper, adding that undercover officers will also be employed to prevent voter fraud.
According to official figures, 4.5 million Israelis are eligible to vote in the run-off between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Likud leader, Ariel Sharon, who has taken a seemingly insurmountable 20-point opinion poll lead into the election, the paper added.
The army vote began Sunday, but will close at the same time as the regular polls, said The Jerusalem Post newspaper, adding that some 35,000 people will be voting at the country's 184 hospitals.
10,000 prisoners and jailers will be able to vote in 42 prisons.
Overseas voters have already cast their ballots, but only 66 percent of the 3,750 eligible overseas voters chose to do so, the Post added.
This is much lower than the normal voter turnout rate in Israel, which stood at 79 percent in the last two elections (1996 and 1999).
In the 1999 prime ministerial race, 180,000 invalid ballots were cast, of which the lion's share were blank ballots (blank ballots are not counted separately).
AFP said that the prime ministerial ballot is widely regarded as a referendum on Middle East peace, with both Sharon and embattled incumbent Barak pledging to try to forge an accord with the Palestinians, although their approaches are poles apart.
Israel decided to seal off the Palestinian territories on election day amid warnings of possible anti-Israeli attacks by militant groups, sources told Albawaba.com Monday
Final opinion polls published in the Israeli press on the eve of the election showed the hardline former general Sharon maintaining his massive double-digit lead over the 58-year-old Barak, both military men turned politicians.
It is the third election in just five years for Israelis but the first time in the nation's history that they have gone to the polls to choose a prime minister without a parallel parliamentary election, AFP said.
The election is widely regarded as a protest vote against the Labor leader after the collapse of peace talks and the explosion of violence more than four months ago rather than a ringing endorsement of the rival Likud party chief, AFP added.
Israel's community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who make up some 18 percent of the electorate, and its Arab citizens are expected to desert Barak after helping him to a landslide victory over the then right-wing premier Benjamin Netanyahu in May 1999, added the agency.
Arab Israelis, who represent about 13 percent of the electorate, have threatened to boycott the poll. They are furious with Barak over the killing of 13 members of their community in the early days of the Intifada.
Meanwhile, former prime minister Shimon Peres said Monday that the Labor party should consider joining forces with Sharon, if the hawkish leader unseats Barak in Israel's election and proves open to compromise with the Palestinians, Haaretz said.
"If there will be a chance for the continuation of the peace process, then I don't see any reason why not to have a national unity government," Peres said.
Peres added, however, that Sharon's previous positions and his reported plans to offer the Palestinians no land beyond what they now control, about 42 percent of the West Bank and most of Gaza, was not a basis for achieving progress.
"I'm not sure he's prepared to offer the necessary compromises to reach peace," Peres said of Sharon.
Peres said that if Sharon formed a narrow coalition based on right-wing and religious parties, it would be unstable.
"If there won't be a national unity government, I very much doubt that Sharon can survive any length of time," he said.
Barak's short term was plagued by a fractious parliament divided among small, sectorial factions and split almost evenly between hawks and doves, said the Israeli paper -- Albawaba.com
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com )