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.

Khaled Desouki/AFP/Newscom
Nikola Solic/Reuters
Players: Benjamin Netanyahu, Likud leader, led polls before fighting started.
Tsafrir Aboyov/AP
Dark horse: Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, center, visited a construction site hit by a Palestinian rocket Monday. His Labor Party has climbed in the polls since the Gaza offensive.

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.

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.

A successful endgame to the current fighting could help Kadima and Barak's Labor Party make up for their failures on Gaza. A redux of the Lebanon war would be disastrous for their chances in next month's election.

Two polls this week showed the center-left bloc of parties – which are headed by Livni and Barak – pulling into a tie or gaining a slight majority in the upcoming parliament. Previously, a coalition of right-wing and religious parties were forecast to hold the advantage.

As the fighting continued, Israel's cabinet convened amid international pressure for a truce. The Israel-Hamas conflict seemed to have reached a crossroads with calls for both international diplomacy and a ground assault. The decision as of Wednesday was to continue the air campaign.

"We didn't enter an operation in Gaza only to end it with the continuation of rocket fire in the beginning," said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the cabinet meeting. "Israel restrained itself for years and gave a chance for calm."

Already, the intersection of war and the election is highlighting a number of incongruences of a political system in flux.

First, the military operation is being overseen by a lame duck premier. Mr. Olmert was forced to resign last year over corruption allegations and remains deeply unpopular for his handling of the inconclusive Lebanon war. So far, Olmert has been an electoral burden to Kadima and Livni, much the same way that President Bush was a drag on the bid by Sen. John McCain's (R) of Arizona for the presidency.

While Livni is running as the leader of the center-left political bloc, the military offensive has relegated her playing only a supporting role. Olmert is calling the shots and Barak is overseeing the widely respected military; Livni is charged with liaising with international diplomats that Israelis largely turn up their noses at.

"Tzipi Livni is a third wheel in this troika," says Gideon Doron, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University. "The foreign minister should provide the international conditions that provide the time for the operation [to succeed]. It's not clear if she can do that."

And yet, the momentum from a positive end to the fighting would also help Livni.

Barak, meanwhile, remains the dark horse candidate for prime minister even though he has received the biggest boost from the operation. His Labor Party has been forecast to receive 15 to 16 seats in the next parliament, up from 11 or 10.

Front-runner Netanyahu, one of the chief critics of the government's policy toward Hamas, has been forced to abandon his assault on Livni's leadership credentials. Instead, he has dutifully taken on the challenge of explaining to the international community the policy of a government he would like to replace.

Eventually, however, Netanyahu and Likud are expected to end their political cease-fire.

Likud is now running neck-and-neck with Livni's Kadima, forfeiting a lead of about six to eight seats from earlier in December. Political observers have cited internal Likud turmoil as the primary reason for the drop.

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