Israel goes to polls in wake of Gaza offensive

Israel votes on Tuesday in the wake of the war in Gaza, with the ballot expected to shift the country to the right and put it at odds with a new United States leadership intent on pushing for Middle East peace.

The media-savvy Benjamin Netanyahu is tipped by opinion polls to make a triumphant comeback after three years in the political wilderness and 10 years since he last occupied the prime minister’s chair.

Although a record 20% of undecided voters have infused the ballot with a tinge of suspense, the vast majority of polls say the right will come back strongly in Israel’s 18th parliamentary elections.

And 59-year-old Bibi, as Netanyahu is known in Israel, will have the best chance of forming a ruling coalition in the 120-seat Parliament, the Knesset.

His Likud is expected to get the most seats of any party, between 25 and 27 according to opinion polls, reflecting a rightward shift in a society exhausted by years of violence and limping peace talks.

“Israelis are sick of the peace process, of experiments,” said Ze’ev Khanin, a political analyst at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.

“They want their leaders to stop rocking the boat, they want that everything returns to how it was in the early 90s… before [current president Shimon] Peres and [former prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin began these experiments.”

Rabin and his then-foreign minister Peres negotiated the 1993 Oslo Accords that mapped out Palestinian self-rule. Before that, Israel was governed by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, a fervent nationalist who opposed any territorial concession and cracked down hard on Palestinian activists.

Kadima, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, is hobbling in second place with an expected 23 to 25 seats, battered by three tumultuous years under outgoing premier Ehud Olmert.

Olmert’s stewardship was marked by two wars, a slew of corruption scandals involving senior party leaders including the premier himself, and teetering peace talks.

The poll’s biggest spoiler is expected to be Avigdor Lieberman, a Soviet immigrant whose regular harangues against Arab Israelis have swelled support for his ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party so much that it is tipped to become Knesset’s third-largest, nudging out the centre-left Labour.

The 50-year-old is predicted by polls to get between 18 and 19 seats, nearly half of his support coming on the back of the war in Gaza, as Lieberman’s hard-line rhetoric found fertile ground with voters looking for a fresh face with a hard hand to deal with Israel’s never-ending security concerns.

“Lieberman is considered a strong man and the young generation is looking for a strong man,” said Minah Tsemach, of the Dahaf Polling Institute.

If the poll predictions bear out, Lieberman will become the new kingmaker in the complex world of Israeli coalition building, where whoever can rally support for at least 61 seats in Parliament becomes the next prime minister.

To minimise friction with main ally Washington, Netanyahu will first try to form a broad coalition with either Labour or Kadima, analysts say.

“He’s not going to build a pure right-wing coalition, he’ll try to build a broad one,” said Shmuel Sandler, an analyst with Bar Ilan University. “He will try to build a more centrist government.”

“There will be no revolution,” said Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the Oslo accords that Netanyahu has proudly said he had stopped during his first premiership.

“The last thing he needs now is to marry Lieberman, he would like to present a face of a moderate, pragmatic leader.
He doesn’t need this right now,” said Beilin, considered Israel’s veteran dove.

Although Netanyahu is considered a hawk and put the brakes on the peace process when first elected premier in 1996, he has made concessions under American pressure, including signing the Wye River accord with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1998.

Observers do not discount him making concessions again if US President Barack Obama’s administration applies enough pressure.

“One should not think that if Netanyahu is prime minister the peace process will be shelved,” said Beilin. “If the Americans are led by Obama, there is a chance for peace.”

The election is taking place about three weeks after the end of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s deadliest offensive on Gaza that killed more than 1 300 people, destroyed large swathes of the territory and sparked widespread protests across the globe.

The Palestinians—divided more than ever with Islamist Hamas controlling Gaza and moderate president Mahmoud Abbas running the West Bank—are bracing for the premiership of the man who authorised a major expansion of settlements in the West Bank and fiercely opposed the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.

But they are hoping that Obama and his Middle East envoy, former senator George Mitchell who helped broker peace in Northern Ireland in 1998, will pressure the Jewish state into concessions.

“Mitchell will be the sole window of hope,” said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the director of the Palestinian Society for the Study of International Affairs. “Everything will depend on what he will be able to accomplish, whatever government may be in power in Israel.”—AFP

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