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

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    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.
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    Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni
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    Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu
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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.

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.

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"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.

Mr. Netanyahu, who had the awkward role of defending the government to the international press during the Gaza offensive, has resumed his criticism of this government's Gaza policy. Right-wing allies of Netanyahu have warned that the military operation has left Hamas in a position to threaten Israel in the future.

Just a few weeks ago, before the fighting, the campaign focused on good government, economics, and leadership.

"Today it's a different world. Security and leadership, mainly in times of crisis, have moved center stage," wrote Yossi Verter, a political commentator in the Haaretz newspaper. "Netanyahu is feeling good – Hamas was always his preferred playing field. In 2006 he was talking about 'Hamastan,' and nobody wanted to listen."

To be sure, the biggest single winner from the war has been Mr. Barak and his Labor Party, which seemed to be fading into irrelevancy with polls indicating a fourth or fifth place finish prior to the war. Labor's 50 percent jump in popularity puts it in third place and makes Barak a leading candidate to continue as defense minister in the next government, but he's still far behind in the race for prime minister.

Netanayhu's Likud party continues to lead Livni's Kadima party by a range of three to six seats, according to recent polls. What's more, right-wing and religious parties are projected to control a 10-seat majority over a coalition of center, left, and Arab parties in the 120-seat parliament. That would allow Netanyahu, who first served as prime minister for three years in the 1990s, a leg up in forming a coalition.

Netanyahu has said that before negotiating a final peace deal can be reached with the Palestinians, the Palestinian Authority needs to build up the Palestinian economy in the West Bank and implement further political reforms. Critics say such a delay in the peace process comes when many fear that the window of opportunity is closing for a two-state solution.

Livni's prospects as prime minister looked more promising at the start of the Gaza war, when several polls showed a coalition of center-left wing and Arab parties pulling even with the right wing. Livni is now coming under fire from those who were unhappy with the UN Security Council Resolution that called for an immediate cease-fire and the international pressure to withdraw from Gaza.

She is also criticized for the failure to force Hamas to negotiate over Corporal Shalit, the Israeli soldier taken hostage.

Political analysts note, however, a fragile cease-fire with Hamas means the fighting might not be finished, creating a volatile environment for public opinion leading up to the Feb. 10 vote. "It's very fluid," says Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University. "If something happens and the Israeli army retaliates, [the fighting] won't be over."

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