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Gaza war widens lead of Israel's conservative Likud Party

Polls show Benjamin Netanyahu likely to be next prime minister as Israelis vote on Feb. 10.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 21, 2009

ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL: Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (shown here) is up in the polls. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is slipping. Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu is doing better than before the war.

Tara Todras-whitehall/AP

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Tel Aviv

As Israeli soldiers pull back from the Gaza Strip and Hamas's rockets go silent, Israel's dormant election campaign has come back to life.

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With just three weeks before voters go to the polls, the center-left government is getting high marks from the Israeli public for its pounding offensive in Gaza. But Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her ruling centrist Kadima Party may fall victim to the military's success.

Polls show that the conservative opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party have opened up a bigger lead, based on a public concern that the offensive left the Hamas regime intact while failing to free an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, imprisoned in Gaza for 2-1/2 years.

"That's one of the interesting paradoxes of the war," says Mitchell Barak, a pollster who runs the survey group Keevoon. "It restored the Israeli public's confidence in the Israeli army, and in Israel's leadership's ability to defend its citizens ... but it didn't go far enough [to weaken Hamas]."

On the third day of the Israel-Hamas cease-fire, there were rival allegations of violations. The Palestinians said that a farmer was shot dead by Israeli soldiers in the northern Gaza Strip, a charge denied by a military spokeswoman. Israel's army said that it returned fire after one of its units inside Gaza was shot at near the border fence.

The three-week Gaza war has shifted the focus of Israel's truncated parliamentary campaign toward the best approach in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and the threat of rockets on southern Israel.

Already, Ms. Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party are back on the campaign trail hailing the war's achievements. They're touting Israel's restored deterrence against militants and the international support expressed by US and European leaders.

Addressing Israeli college students in a Tel Aviv suburb Tuesday, Livni bragged that European leaders came to Jerusalem to work with Israeli leaders despite the international uproar over the Palestinian civilian toll during fighting. About 1,300 Palestinians were killed, many of them noncombatants and children, according to health officials.

"If Hamas fires a Qassam rocket at Israel, they will get hit again, just like they got hit now, and they know that," Livni said in an interview with Israel Radio on Monday.