Israel's Elections: Making a Hard Right

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Ariel Schalit / AP

A soldier walks past an election campaign billboard for Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv.

After the Gaza war, Israeli voters are expected to veer towards the right in Tuesday's elections, paving the way for a new hard-line coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, the former Prime Minister and leader of the Likud party. When Israelis last voted in 2006, they chose the centrist Kadima party, which vowed to push for a U.S.-sponsored peace with the Palestinians, even if it meant sacrificing Jewish-held land in the West Bank. This time, with the rise of Hamas in Gaza, few Israelis have illusions about reaching a lasting peace.

Thus, though corruption and the battered Israeli economy have also beset the country, Israelis are scared about the security of their country, with perceived threats coming from Iran, the Lebanese militia Hizballah to the north apart from the Islamic militants Hamas in Gaza. Netanyahu and other hawkish politicians are capitalizing on these fears, arguing, for starters, that Israel's 22-day assault on Gaza should have pressed on until Hamas was crushed. Despite the punishing Israeli offensive, the Palestinian Islamists are still firing rockets sporadically from Gaza. (See pictures of heartbreak in the Middle East.)

Nevertheless, with the election due on Feb. 10, voters do not find any of the main candidates for prime minister particularly inspiring. There are two failed ex-premiers — Netanyahu and Labor's Ehud Barak — and a terse and untested politician, Tzipi Livni, 50, the current foreign minister and leader of the centrist Kadima party. If elected, she would be the second woman to lead Israel as prime minister.

Early polls appeared to show that Netanyahu, 59, would be a sure winner. His hammering on about the many military threats to Israel made his lead look insurmountable. "There is no choice but to uproot the Iranian-backed regime in Gaza," he told a Wednesday campaign rally. But by the weekend, Netanyahu's lead in the polls was slipping. Livni was right behind him, and gaining.

Netanyahu's support may also be eroding because Israeli right-wingers have found a new champion, Avigdor Lieberman, 50. A Moldovan-born immigrant and ex-nightclub bouncer, Lieberman is denounced by the leftist Israeli press as "a racist" and a nationalist in the mold of Russia's Vladimir Putin. He wants Israeli Arabs to swear loyalty to the Jewish state or lose their voting rights; and he is demanding that borders be re-drawn so that more than 100,000 Israeli Arabs, against their will, would become part of a future Palestinian state. Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party is expected to garner 18 to 19 seats, bumping the venerable old Labor party, headed by ex-premier and current defense minister Ehud Barak, 66, into fourth place. As for the rest of the 120-seat Knesset, according to the latest polls, Likud is expected to win 25 to 27 seats there; Kadima 23 to 25 seats.

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