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As Israelis vote, it's all about war and peace

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud party hawk, leads in polls ahead of Tuesday's parliamentary election.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 10, 2009

Early voting: Many soldiers and police officers voted Monday, a day before polls opened in Israel for parliamentary elections. Above, a polling station in Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.

Dan Balilty/AP

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When Israelis go to polls Tuesday, the impact of the country's two wars in less than three years will be a deciding factor for many.

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Gaza still smolders after the 22-day assault on Hamas that killed 1,300 Palestinians but didn't stop rockets from falling on Israel. That operation rekindled many of the painful memories from Israel's 2006 failed war in Lebanon against Hezbollah.

The ruling Kadima party, a centrist coalition, oversaw both operations and will probably take the brunt of voter frustration over its performance. The wars have pushed Israelis, many of whom wanted to take a harder line against militants on their borders, further to the right, giving conservative parliamentary candidates the edge.

Pollsters predicted on Monday that Likud party chief Benjamin Netanyahu would come out on top, a victory that could redefine the terms of Middle East peacemaking.

"The right-wing politicians are able to say, 'You had a center-left coalition and it didn't you bring anything, except that it engaged in two wars in just over two years,' " says Yitzhak Brudny, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

He points to decisions to make unilateral withdrawals from occupied territories as a formula that now looks like a failure in the eyes of many here. The Labor Party under Ehud Barak, now defense minister, withdrew from south Lebanon in April 2000, and Kadima, led by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, withdrew from the Gaza Strip in August 2005.

"If you had the solution, and this was it, just withdraw, well, this is what you get: another war," he says, paraphrasing the rhetoric of the right.

Even though the Israeli military succeeded in inflicting heavy damage on Hamas, the Islamist militant movement ruling Gaza, the prospects of peace with Israel's neighbors now seems more elusive than ever before, luring many voters to the right.

While that trend has been growing for several years, analysts and pollsters say, the war's indecisive outcome and the insecurity over what comes next is what is causing many to give up on Kadima.

Netanyahu is riding into election day with a small lead over Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, head of Kadima. Netanyahu ousted the Labor Party in 1996 on a campaign against the Oslo Accords, which aimed to reach a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through negotiations.

Avigdor Lieberman, whose far-right Yisrael Beitainu (Israel is Our Home) has gained the most from the Gaza war. Polls predict that he will come in third, with more seats even than Labor.