JERUSALEM – Israel seems to be moving rightward going into Tuesday’s national election, with polls giving the edge to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a tough stance on Mideast peacemaking that could lead to a collision with the new U.S. administration.
Israel’s complex coalition system and a large number of undecided voters could still allow Netanyahu’s moderate rival, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, to squeeze out a victory.
But the war in Gaza, a looming recession and a pervasive belief that giving up land only draws more attacks have boosted Netanyahu and other hard-line candidates as Israelis prepare to choose a new 120-member parliament.
“How do I explain Israel’s turn to the right?” asks analyst Reuven Hazan. “In three words: Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran.”
The 23 days of fighting in the Gaza Strip last month appear to have nourished Israel’s self image as a besieged nation surrounded by enemies – even though moderate candidates like Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak can claim political points for having helped wage the popular war. Both those candidates favor evacuating territory to make room for a Palestinian state.
But of all the contenders for prime minister, Netanyahu seems to best channel the current mood. The polished, baritone-voiced politician with flawless English sees confronting threats as the No. 1 priority rather than chasing an elusive peace deal with the Palestinians.
“Last time I voted for Barak and we tried to be nice to the Arabs and you see what we got,” 37-year-old Jerusalem resident Elan Benaroush said, referring to the rocket attacks and Hamas takeover of Gaza that followed Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the territory. “We have to be strong. It’s a security vote.”
Opinion polls indicate that right-leaning parties together may garner a majority of about 65 seats in the next parliament, the Knesset.
But surveys also say the lead of Netanyahu’s Likud Party over Livni’s centrist Kadima Party has narrowed, with an edge of just two or three seats. If Kadima surpassed Likud on election day as the biggest party, President Shimon Peres would likely ask Livni to form the next government.
About a quarter of Israel’s 5.3 million eligible voters were undecided in the campaign’s final days, polls said.
Even with a late victory, however, Livni would not be able to form a government without bringing hawks on board. That would put her in the same position she was in three months ago, when she failed to put together a coalition and triggered the current election by refusing to cave in to the right’s demands after corruption charges forced Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to resign.
Specifically, it’s unlikely Livni could put together a coalition without Avigdor Lieberman, a hawkish immigrant from the former Soviet Union who is emerging as the kingmaker in Tuesday’s vote. His Yisrael Beitenu Party now appears to be vying with Barak’s Labor to be Israel’s third largest party.
Lieberman has based his campaign on denying citizenship to Arabs he considers disloyal – a position that gave rise to one of the campaign’s most colorful TV ads, courtesy of the dovish Meretz Party: “If you liked Mussolini, if you were missing Stalin, you’ll love Lieberman.”
A victorious Netanyahu also could find himself forced into a broader coalition with doves if moderate parties did well enough.
But another possibility is that Netanyahu would team up with ultra-nationalists and Orthodox Jewish parties that oppose territorial concessions to the Palestinians – an outcome that would deal a big blow to U.S.-sponsored Mideast peace talks.
Netanyahu was recently quoted as saying he would allow existing Jewish settlements in the West Bank to expand.
He told a security conference Wednesday that any territory Israel relinquished to the Palestinians as part of a peace deal would be “grabbed by extremists.” He said peace efforts should focus on building the Palestinian economy rather than creating an independent state – a position sure to be rejected by the Palestinians and most of the international community.
Those views are likely to put Netanyahu at odds with President Barack Obama, who has been reaching out to Muslims and promising fresh approaches to dealing with the Middle East, including moving forward vigorously with the vision of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“It is unfortunate if there is a positive political atmosphere in the U.S. and a negative political path in Israel,” said Mohammed Shtayyeh, the head of a Palestinian economic development council.
The aftermath of the Gaza fighting could be another source of friction, especially if the Obama administration lends its support to an idea gaining currency in international circles of trying to pull the Islamic militants of Hamas out of Iran’s orbit by offering incentives.
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