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The scent of elections is in the air and parties are again debating mergers and acquisitions: Labor with Kadima, and Likud with Yisrael Beiteinu. However, a Haaretz poll indicates - and not for the first time - that mergers would reduce votes, not add them, and the overall blocs do better when each party runs alone.

The poll was conducted Tuesday and Wednesday, the days of Morris Talansky's testimony and Ehud Barak's press conference. It indicated that a Kadima led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni would garner 23 Knesset seats, while a Barak-led Labor would win 15, for 38 seats altogether. However, a united list of both parties would get two fewer seats.

A Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu merger produces similar results. Likud led by Benjamin Netanyahu running alongside Yisrael Beiteinu headed by Avigdor Lieberman (against Livni in Kadima and Barak in Labor) would get 29 and 11 seats respectively. Running together, the merged party would get 35 seats, five short of their separate results.

The reason is simple: Mergers drive away voters. Left-wing voters interested in voting Labor will think twice if their ballot will help put former Likudniks like Tzachi Hanegbi or Eli Aflalo into the Knesset. And former Likud voters interested in voting Kadima will have trouble voting for a party that includes the likes of Ophir Pines and Amir Peretz.

The same is true on the right. Netanyahu and Lieberman talk occasionally of merging and have agreed to decide only after a date for elections is set. Likud sources now believe such a merger is unlikely, mostly due to electoral considerations and the loss of Knesset seats. However, Likud members admit that if Labor and Kadima merge and public sentiment seems to support a merger on the right as well, there may be no way to avoid it.

The Haaretz-Dialog poll also examined how the four candidates to lead Kadima - Livni, Shaul Mofaz, Shimon Sheetrit and Avi Dichter - stand with party voters. The results were unequivocal: Livni is the voters' choice. She is considered better able to handle terrorism and other security issues than Mofaz (a former defense minister and chief of staff) and Dichter (a former Shin Bet security service head), as well as better able to lead Israel's economy than Sheetrit (a former finance minister). Livni is also seen as the most honest and sincere among the candidates.