Mon, Feb 09, 2009 - Page 6 News List

Israel turning rightward going into ballot

WAR FEVER The recent fighting in the Gaza Strip has fueled Israelis’ self-image that their country is besieged on all sides by enemies that would like to see it destroyed


People pass an election billboard showing Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Friday.


Israel seems to be moving rightward going into tomorrow’s national election, with polls giving the edge to former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a tough stance on Mideast peacemaking that could lead to a collision with the new US administration.

Israel’s complex coalition system and a large number of undecided voters could still allow Netanyahu’s moderate rival, Israeli 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?” analyst Reuven Hazan asks. “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 Israeli 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, Israeli 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.

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