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Israel opposition candidate Netanyahu still leads in polls

Hours after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared victory in the Gaza Strip, the hawkish contender to succeed him paid a visit to wounded soldiers and insisted that the enemy had not been defeated.

“We have a strong people and a strong military that dealt a harsh blow to Hamas, but unfortunately the work is still not done,” Benjamin Netanyahu said before television cameras outside a hospital last week. “Hamas still controls Gaza.”

That was only the warmup.

“We cannot show weakness against Hamas and its Iranian supporters,” the opposition leader added. “We need a strong, unwavering, persistent hand until the threat is eliminated.”

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Israel’s election campaign, placed on hold during the 22-day military assault, is back in full swing. And despite a wartime popularity boost for the center-left government’s senior ministers, Netanyahu has emerged with his front-runner status intact -- and with new ammunition for his bid to unseat them.

The Feb. 10 elections offer a stark contrast of scenarios as the Obama administration considers how to forge a peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians. That task starts this week with a visit to the region by its new Middle East envoy, former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell.

Netanyahu, a former prime minister, is manifestly less interested in negotiating an agreement on Palestinian statehood than is either of his main rivals. His closest opponent, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has led Israel’s talks with the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank for more than a year and wants to continue them.

During that time, Israelis became more skeptical of peace as Hamas, the Islamic militant group running Gaza, stepped up rocket fire into southern Israel. And that has helped Netanyahu hold a consistent lead in voter surveys before and since the Gaza offensive.

The intense heat of battle in Gaza, halted Jan. 18 by Israel’s unilateral cease-fire, has pushed the Israeli electorate even more to the right. Voters think more about protecting their nation from Palestinians, including the minority who are citizens of Israel, than about giving them an independent state.

“It’s a paradox that, throughout Israel’s history, whenever the left fights a successful war, the right gains politically,” said Maya Yaakov, a close campaign aide to Livni. “We are a very nationalist people, and war brings our nationalist passions to the fore.”

In the race for 120 seats in parliament, polls conducted in the last week gave Netanyahu’s Likud Party a lead of three to 12 seats over Livni’s centrist Kadima party, headed by Olmert until corruption scandals forced him to call elections a year ahead of schedule.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s left-leaning Labor Party, a junior partner in the governing coalition, is far back in the polls, even though the Gaza offensive helped Barak, as well as Livni, gain sharply higher personal approval ratings.

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Although the standing of the three leading parties has changed little since the offensive, the extreme right-wing Israel Is Our Home party has gained, pulling even with Labor in third place.

Avigdor Lieberman, the rightist party’s leader, has denounced the cease-fire as “a firetrap.” He also engineered a vote in parliament, widely supported in opinion surveys but blocked by the Supreme Court, to disqualify two Israeli Arab parties from the election. He said their leaders “should be dealt with like Hamas.”

The latest polls indicate that Likud, Our Home and other right-wing parties could together win a slim majority in parliament, allowing Netanyahu to govern without watering down his hard-line agenda.

Israel invaded Gaza with the declared aim of crippling Hamas’ ability and will to fire rockets into Israel. The decision was both a risk and an opportunity for Livni and Barak, who worked with Olmert in deciding Israel’s every military and diplomatic move.

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Conventional wisdom held that an Israeli victory would help both candidates, at Netanyahu’s expense, and that a long, inconclusive stalemate would hurt them. But although Hamas’ paramilitary forces suffered a clear setback, Netanyahu has tried to shape Israelis’ perception of the outcome as something less than mission accomplished.

He and other Likud candidates are praising the military’s bravery while criticizing the political leadership for halting the operation and missing a chance to overthrow the Hamas government.

That message has a receptive audience. Although Israelis firmly supported the assault on Hamas, polling last week showed them divided evenly on whether the military should have withdrawn from Gaza, as it did Wednesday, or taken control of the seaside enclave.

The shortened election campaign is being waged partly along that fault line as Netanyahu’s challengers defend the decision to implement a cease-fire two days before President Obama’s inauguration.

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Livni is taking credit for securing U.S. and European support for an international agreement on steps to choke off Hamas’ weapons pipeline through Egypt.

After that, “there was a public call to continue more and more,” she told students at a management school Tuesday, “but when I felt we had won and achieved our goals,” the operation ended.

Barak, speaking in Tel Aviv to an industrialists group Thursday, said Hamas was surprised by the intensity of the military campaign and now has “very little appetite” to keep fighting.

“We can expect a very limited recurrence of shooting for a long period of time,” he said.

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Seizing on its leader’s wartime popularity, the Labor Party has launched a new campaign under the slogan “At the Moment of Truth -- Barak.” But Barak is given little chance of regaining the prime minister’s job, which he held for 20 months from 1999 to 2001. The race is considered a duel between Netanyahu and Livni, with Barak angling to keep the defense minister’s job no matter who wins.

Livni is trying to cut Netanyahu’s lead by attacking his credibility, his turbulent three years as prime minister in the 1990s and the policies that unfettered Israel’s financial markets, widening the gap between rich and poor, when he was finance minister five years ago.

To a scandal-weary electorate, Livni is touting the fact that she, unlike Olmert and her two main opponents, has never been investigated by the police for alleged financial irregularities.

And she is trying to marshal the admiration Israelis felt for Obama’s presidential run by portraying herself as Israel’s candidate of youth, hope, integrity and change. At 50, she is nine years younger than Netanyahu and 16 younger than Barak, and would be the first woman to lead Israel in nearly four decades.

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Her campaign is handing out T-shirts across Israel with the slogan “Believni.”

But the fighting in Gaza has helped Netanyahu neutralize Livni’s campaign, his supporters say, by allowing him to emphasize his security experience as a former prime minister. It has also let him say, “I told you so,” reminding voters that he opposed Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of military bases and settlements from Gaza in 2005.

During the recent offensive, Netanyahu suspended his election campaign to volunteer as a spin doctor for Israel’s cause on international television networks. (And to be sure it was noticed at home, he arranged for Israel’s Channel 2 to document his public relations blitz.)

His campaign has unveiled a new slogan, “Netanyahu: Strong on security, strong on the economy,” hoping Gaza will eclipse the credibility and corruption issues raised by Livni.

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“The more you’re talking about big issues facing the country, I think the stronger position he’s in,” said Ron Dermer, a senior campaign aide.

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boudreaux@latimes.com


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