Netanyahu's political rivals hold fire while Gaza fighting rages

 

Jerusalem

Israeli political leaders are rallying around Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu two months before national elections as the conflict in the Gaza Strip intensifies.

Most of the party leaders running against Netanyahu's Likud faction have expressed support for the government's Gaza policy and suspended public campaigning while rockets strike Israeli cities. Labor party leader Shelly Yachimovich, who has campaigned by criticizing Netanyahu's economic and social policies, said about Gaza that "regaining both deterrence abilities and peace for residents of the south are achievable goals."

Netanyahu may lead Israel into its first ground offensive since the Gaza invasion in 2008 following the first air attacks on Jerusalem since the 1967 war. A poll published Nov. 19 in the Haaretz newspaper showed 84 percent of Israelis support the Gaza operation, though only 30 percent would support an invasion.

"If elections were held now, Netanyahu would easily win," Camil Fuchs, head of the Statistics and Operations Research Department at Tel Aviv University who conducted the Haaretz poll of 502 Israelis, said in a phone interview. "Historically however, the impact of these military operations on the electorate is not lasting."

Fuchs pointed to the example to Israel's previous Gaza operation, initiated by a Kadima-led government in 2008, which also enjoyed wide support while failing to stop Netanyahu from attaining the premiership in the 2009 election.

Israel started its current Gaza operation on Nov. 14 with the targeted assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari, commander of the militant wing of Hamas. Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by Israel, the U.S and the European Union.

Israel said it acted after an increase in rocket attacks from the Hamas-ruled territory and an escalation in attacks on its soldiers patrolling the Gaza border.

More than 95 Palestinians have been killed in the first six days of Israeli air strikes on Gaza, half of them civilians, according to Ashraf al-Qedra of the Hamas-run Ministry of Health. More than 1,000 rockets were fired into Israel during that period, killing three people, the Israeli army said.

A risk for Netanyahu is that if a Gaza invasion were to go wrong or fall short of its goal it might unravel political solidarity and hurt his poll ratings.

"If the outcome fails to stop the rockets, that would weaken Netanyahu's credentials on security, which is supposed to be one of his strong points," said Mark Heller, research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv.

For now, Heller says that Netanyahu's lead is probably strong enough for him to clinch victory. Even voters who might desert his Likud faction over a less than successful Gaza operation would probably still vote for ideologically similar parties that would support Netanyahu in a coalition.

"Given the stability of the right-wing and left-wing blocs in the Israeli electorate, it would have to be a really dramatic development to swing the election," Heller said in a telephone interview.

Netanyahu last month merged his party with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman's Yisrael Beitenu faction to create a joint electoral list. According to the Haaretz poll, the combined Likud-Beitenu list would currently win 41 seats in Israel's 120- seat parliament, the Knesset, and easily pick up enough ideologically-aligned allies to again form a majority coalition. Labor would get 21 seats. Those figures match polls conducted prior to the start of the Gaza operation.

Israel's Gaza strikes haven't won support across the entire political spectrum. Arab parties in Israel, which together hold 11 seats in the Knesset, have condemned the policy and staged public protests.

Also criticizing the government is the three-seat Meretz faction, which among Israel's Zionist parties has been the most strongly opposed to Netanyahu's handling of the peace process and his support for Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

"It is impossible to ignore the fact that we are in the midst of a campaign season," Meretz leader Zehava Gal-On said on Channel Two television Nov. 17, suggesting the proximity of elections may have influenced the government's decision to initiate the Gaza operation.

Neither Netanyahu, nor Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whose newly formed Independence party would garner only two Knesset seats according to the poll, have responded in public to such criticism. Haaretz reported on Nov. 16 that in a private discussion, Barak rejected such comments, saying "politics is in the head only of those who attribute political motives to us."

Even if it only partially attains its aims, the Gaza operation will benefit Netanyahu, according to Tamir Sheafer, political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"Surveys usually show that when Israel is engaged in a military operation or active conflict, support in general increases for the right-wing, for more hawkish parties and politicians," Sheafer said in a phone interview.

"Even now, the political conversation here has shifted from economic and social issues to the security situation," said Sheafer. "And that works to Netanyahu's advantage."

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