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Political cease-fire ends in Israel

By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times –

JERUSALEM — Soon after the cease-fire took effect this week between Israel and Hamas, another truce ended: The agreement among candidates in Israel’s upcoming elections not to campaign during the crisis.

Analysts said it probably was too much to ask for the political cease-fire to last much longer. “The War has Started,” said a front page headline in Friday’s leading Yediot Aharonot newspaper, referring to the barely couched maneuvering for advantage.

Some question whether there was ever a break in the politicking.

“Even during the conflict, there was no cease-fire,” said Gabriel Weimann, communication and politics professor at Haifa University. “The campaign was always going on.”

Yediot Aharonot reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his inner circle delayed announcing the cease-fire with Hamas, largely concerned that air-raid warnings in the final hours of the conflict, just as he was unveiling the deal, could damage his election prospects.

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the eight-day conflict would benefit Netanyahu.

Israel pounded Hamas targets, killed several Hamas leaders, sharply reduced stockpiles of rockets that militants in Gaza were firing at Israel, and showed that its Iron Dome anti-missile system was highly effective.

But pundits say that the conflict will be politically neutral at best for Netanyahu and his Likud Party, and that assumes the cease-fire more or less holds through the Jan. 22 elections, in which 120 seats will be contested in the Knesset, or parliament.

A poll released Friday found most Israelis opposed the cease-fire. Israelis have been unsettled by the “Arab Spring” and many hoped for a knockout blow against Hamas.

In southern Israel, which is closest to Gaza and is the most threatened by rocket attacks, a plurality thought the cease-fire was a mistake.

Ashkalon shopkeeper Lior Yossef, 24, said he used to support Netanyahu. “Now I’m not so sure. Of course we don’t want to get hit with rockets, but this isn’t going to stop anything. We need to go into Gaza and flush them out.”

In the volatile Middle East, the two months left until the elections is a long time. “You could have four wars in that time,” Weimann said.

Netanyahu’s political fate is tied in part to Hamas, Egypt and even the United States, given their influence on whether rocket attacks resume, weapons blockades are enforced and the deal is policed.

If the cease-fire fails, Netanyahu will almost certainly lose some ground.

“He has a lot of opposition in his own party,” said Yehuda Ben Meir, senior research analyst with the Institute for National Security Studies.

But other factors play into Netanyahu’s hand. Although he isn’t seen as a particularly gutsy, visionary or reliable leader, many here see him as the best candidate in a weak field, especially on a central issue for Israeli voters.

“No other leader has the credibility of Netanyahu on security issues,” said Ofer Kenig, an analyst with Jerusalem’s Israel Democracy Institute.

Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich, long known for her tough positions on social justice, has played it safe politically, essentially ceding many social debates to the right to the consternation of supporters.

Kadima party head Shaul Mofaz is seen by some as thin-skinned and untrustworthy for cozying up to Netanyahu after calling him a “liar,” then reversing course a few months later.

On the right, Yisrael Beiteinu party head Avigdor Lieberman is already aligned with Likud, as is the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas party, led by Eli Yishai.

Many of Israel’s political heavyweights, including former prime ministers Shimon Peres and Ehud Olmert, have either hedged or said they’re not interested in going up against Netanyahu.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who heads a small party, has already tied his future to Netanyahu.

One wild card is ex-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who could siphon off votes from Netanyahu. She may declare her candidacy at the head of a new party as early as Sunday.

Given his perceived strengths, analysts said, Netanyahu has an interest in keeping public attention focused on security instead of social and economic issues.

If the Hamas cease-fire falters, or even if it doesn’t, many expect to hear more about the threat from Iran.

But Israel’s economy is in reasonable shape with 2.9 percent growth, especially compared with southern European countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain.

“The economy isn’t going badly, especially when you look at Europe,” said GilaElcham-Gueata, owner of a nail salon in Ashkelon, who supports Netanyahu.

“And in Israel, you can’t separate the economy from security, from the politics, anyway.”

One looming economic problem that isn’t expected to get much pre-election attention is Israel’s yawning budget deficit, which will probably require any new government to make some tough cuts.

This could lead to pressure on Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community, which has long enjoyed generous welfare programs and military service exemption.

At the end of the day, barring significant new rocket fire by Hamas militants, the Gaza conflict will probably have a limited effect on the elections, some said.

“The memory of the electorate is very short,” said Ben Meir. “In a couple of months, people will probably largely forget about all this.”

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