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How Hamas is altering Israeli politics

The conflict in the Gaza Strip is already having an impact on the political landscape in Israel ahead of parliamentary polls in February.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 2, 2009

Khaled Desouki/AFP/Newscom

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Tel Aviv

While war between Israel and Hamas reverberates from Gaza City to southern Israel and to Arab capitals, the fallout will also be felt within the Israeli Knesset.

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The fighting is already affecting Israeli public opinion ahead of the Feb. 10 parliamentary vote: Before the offensive began polls showed conservative opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party leading. But now, the hawks are losing ground and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, leader of the center-left Labor Party, and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of centrist Kadima are gaining.

But while it's too early to tell which politician will emerge from the high-stakes Gaza conflict with the upper hand, Israel finds itself once again at a moment of transition as a mix of war and politics promises change for the Jewish state.

"Israel often starts wars looking very good, and the end is often less clear," says Asher Arian, a political science professor at Haifa University. "The only thing that is clear is that every campaign will try to spin the outcome to their advantage."

So far the Israeli operation in Gaza is receiving broad public support among Israelis – a political boon for the incumbent Kadima Party.

The government has learned important lessons from the 2006 Lebanon war and executed this operation with more precision and caution than its fight with Hezbollah, says Avraham Ben Tzvi, an international relations commentator for Israel Radio.

But, he cautions, "One missile unfortunately can change the whole picture.... We're not even at halftime."

In 1996, the government of Prime Minister Shimon Peres launched Operation Grapes of Wrath against Hezbollah in Lebanon – a 16-day war that also ended in an inconclusive cease-fire. But because the carnage in southern Lebanon alienated Israeli Arabs, Mr. Peres lost support from a crucial constituency, giving Mr. Netanyahu his first victory as prime minister.

Still the underlying weaknesses for both Mr. Barak and Ms. Livni rest in the fact that they couldn't stop Hamas's rocket fire over the past three years, since Israel's pullout from the coastal enclave.

In the war in Lebanon two years ago, electoral politics were seen as one of the primary factors in the heated rhetoric leading to the war – much the same way it is adding to calls today for the complete toppling of Hamas.