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.

Dan Balilty/AP
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.

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.

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.

"The biggest gainer since the war was Lieberman," says Dr. Brudny. "Part of it is a protest vote by the public, which wasn't satisfied by the fact that the Israeli government stopped the war." The public, he says, was "more militaristic" than the government because it was hoping to see the army topple Hamas altogether.

"The rockets themselves were the biggest boost for Lieberman: He gained support mostly from people who are Likud voters," he adds. By comparison, Netanyahu took a relatively cautious, mainstream view – largely out of concern that he not be seen as too radically right – and disappointed his right-wing base.

But Lieberman won points, he says, by questioning the loyalty of Israeli Arabs, whom Lieberman constantly fingers as a fifth column who don't support the state of Israel.

"When the Israeli public felt that Arabs were not sufficiently patriotic during the war, Lieberman seized on that and decided to break the taboo on a subject that normally, you just don't touch."

The Gaza war has strengthened hawks for a plethora of reasons. Most palpable is that there is so much unfinished business, with Israel still bombing militants and tunnels, and Hamas still sending rockets into Israel. Those who embrace the belief that there are military solutions to the century-old conflict think that Israel ended the war too soon, not trying to drive Hamas out of Gaza altogether.

"Israel didn't even aspire to beating Hamas. When you don't even aspire to winning, the failures are even greater," said Yuval Steinitz, a Knesset member from the Likud party, speaking at a key conference last week at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliyea, north of Tel Aviv.

He blamed the Kadima party for leading Israel into wars with regional enemies, and said that despite Israel's military superiority and lower level of human loss, it was still losing in the form of deterrence.

"These last two years were years of prosperity both for Hezbollah in the north and Hamas in the south. Anyone who tries to look at this and say they absorbed more casualties than we did is ignoring this grave picture and is deluding himself," Mr. Steinitz said.

Israelis who still support the vision of a two-state solution are largely divided between Labor and a slew of smaller left-wing parties. But none of these can foresee a situation that could return even the Labor Party to power.

The party that signed the Oslo Accords is slated to get about 14 of 120 Knesset seats. That's an improvement on its ratings before the war, and in large part is due to the leadership of Mr. Barak, who has walked a fine line between paying homage to future peace but directing the war in the present.

Meanwhile, polls show that up to 30 percent of the electorate is undecided. And this, writes commentator Sima Kadmon, is a sign of political exhaustion.

"They will vote on the basis of a rational, convoluted decision, which will mature when they stand in the polling station. For suddenly an entire people have become strategists. Everyone is making calculations, whom is he strengthening and whom is he weakening, if he votes for someone for whom he does not really want to vote – but the other option is worse," she wrote in a front page op-ed in the Yedioth Ahronoth mass circulation newspaper.

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