Israel: Gaza impact on elections unclear, analysts say

Israel's elections are to be held on 10 February since foreign minister,Tzipi Livni, failed to form a government last October to replace outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert, who was forced to resign over serious fraud and corruption charges.

Rome, 16 Jan. (AKI) - By Klaus Heiss - As international diplomatic efforts were continuing to seek an end to Israel's attacks in the Gaza Strip on Friday, analysts said it was too early to determine how the latest military action would influence voters in the forthcoming Israeli elections.

Former senior US diplomat and president of the Foundation of Middle East Peace, Philip Wilcox, told Adnkronos International (AKI) that the outcome of the elections was too difficult to predict, due to volatile public opinion until there was a clear outcome to the military offensive.

Wilcox, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Middle East affairs, said one reason for the Gaza offensive was to prove that the leadership of the Kadima-Labor coalition, including defence minister Ehud Barak and foreign minister Tzipi Livni, were willing to counter Hamas rocket attacks against southern Israel.

"One of the objectives of Barak, Livni and Olmert, and thus the Kadima-Labor coalition, was to demonstrate they are strong and willing to use force in the face of this Hamas rocket fire," he said in a telephone interview from Washington D.C.

Livni, leader of the ruling centrist Kadima party, is now running in a close race with Binyamin Netanyahu of the hardline Likud party in the lead-up to the general elections scheduled for February.

The latest opinion polls published by Israeli daily Haaretz on Thursday showed that Kadima and Livni have held firm in the polls, and Kadima is expected to win up to 25 seats in the parliament or Knesset.

However, Netanyahu's Likud is expected to win 28 or 29 seats, after gaining four seats during the Gaza offensive.

However, Barak's popularity has risen considerably during the Gaza conflict and his party could win up to 16 seats in parliament, making a Kadima-Labor victory ever more feasible.

Wilcox said although both Livni and Barak had improved their standing in the polls initially because of their tough stance towards Hamas, that could change.

He also predicted an inconclusive end to the Gaza offensive and said that the Islamist Hamas movement was likely to claim victory.

"Hamas will make every effort to convert any military stalemate or defeat into a victory, thereby weakening their adversary, the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah," Wilcox said.

The Palestinian Authority is currently engaged in peace negotiations with Israeli leaders as diplomatic talks continued between key leaders in Cairo and Washington.

Wilcox also said the administration of US president-elect Barack Obama would prefer a moderate, centrist, Livni-Barak government.

Uriya Shavit, political analyst from the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies in Jerusalem, told Adnkronos International (AKI) that rightist prime minister Netanyahu had a good chance of winning the elections if the Gaza war ended inconclusively.

However, Shavit said if the Israeli public has a positive perception of the end of the war, it could tilt the election in favour of Livni and Barak.

Whatever the outcome of the war in Gaza, he said in the past the right-wing had been victorious when it came to matters of state security.

"If history is any guide, what we will see in three weeks, is an overwhelming and decisive victory by Netanyahu," he told AKI.

"At least since the 1980's whenever the elections were about society and economy in Israel, it was the left-wing government that won. Whenever the election was about security it was the right-wing that won decisively."

However, he did not rule out a Livni-Barak victory.

"If the war ends with something the Israeli public would perceive as an Israeli victory, in a way that erases the shame of the 2006 Lebanon war, then there is a good chance Barak will do much better than he did recently, (thus helping Livni)," said Shavit.

Shavit, who is also a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, said there was clearly political manoeuvring behind the Gaza offensive.

"It is improbable that Israeli politicians did not have elections in mind in light of the offensive. I am absolutely sure they did," said Shavit.

Shavit said one of the keys to the election outcome were Israeli Arabs, especially in light of the Gaza offensive.

"If Israeli Arabs do not go and vote, the left loses about 20 percent of its electorate. That would be the end of the story for the left," said Shavit, signalling the failure of the centrist government of Livni to secure a majority coalition of centre-left and leftist parties.

Wilcox pointed out that if Netanyahu won the election, it could make it easier for the new Barack Obama administration to pressure Israel to make peace with the Palestinians.

"There is a theory at least, that if you have a radical, intransigent Israeli government that seems unwilling to compromise, (and) does not genuinely support a two-state solution, that is somehow easier for the US government to deal with," Wilcox said.

Wilcox also pointed out that Netanyahu had quickly developed an adversarial relation with the former Clinton administration during his tenure as prime minister in the 1990's.

"In a way, that made it easier for (President) Bill Clinton to put pressure on the Israeli government and support Palestinian positions."


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