Final push

Final push

JERUSALEM — In an election season compressed into just three weeks due to the military operation in Gaza, during which campaigning ground to a virtual halt, Israel’s political parties have begun to roll out their campaigns ahead of the national elections Feb. 10.

The first round of publicly sponsored and legally restricted TV advertisements aired during a special hour of political broadcasts Tuesday night. Each party was allotted a specific amount of time based on the number of seats it holds in the current Knesset. Due to flagging interest in this year’s campaign, Israeli TV channels have declined to air subsequent broadcasts of the ads during prime time.

Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud is the front-runner, with a widening lead over Kadima, the party now in power.

Kadima has been struggling to raise the profile of party leader Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister. Of the heads of the three largest parties, Livni emerged from the Gaza operation with the fewest gains. Labor leader Ehud Barak received an initial boost from the campaign because as defense minister, he was the architect of Operation Cast Lead.

In the days of criticism that followed the fighting’s end, Netanyahu and another right-wing leader, Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Leiberman, saw their poll numbers rise as critics asked why Israel didn’t finish the job in Gaza by crippling Hamas.

Livni, however, has benefited neither from the war nor its aftermath. Cast by critics as largely irrelevant to the war, Livni was not helped by her appearance in the United States to sign a cooperation agreement on security at the very moment that Israel announced the Gaza cease-fire.

With Likud having the most to lose in the next two weeks of campaigning, Netanyahu is playing it safe and warning supporters not to presume victory.

“We still have two weeks,” the former prime minister said at a rally Monday night. “Even though things look promising, they are not guaranteed.”

If he wins, Netanyahu is expected to reach the 61-seat majority in the Knesset needed to become prime mininster by building a coalition with Labor and smaller parties. On Monday afternoon, Likud announced an alliance with the small religious Zionist party Achi, which is headed by Knesset member Effie Eitam, who left the National Religious Party when it refused to bolt Ariel Sharon’s coalition over the Gaza withdrawal.

Netanyahu has said he favors pursuing achievable incremental agreements with the Palestinians rather than chasing what he sees as an elusive final-status deal for a two-state solution. He has said he wants to focus on bolstering the “moderate parts of the Palestinian economy” to foster the conditions for political agreement.

On Sunday, Netanyahu was quoted as telling Tony Blair, the Middle East envoy of the Quartet grouping of Mideast peace sponsors — the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia — that while he would not build new settlements in the West Bank, he would allow the natural-growth expansion of existing ones.

A former finance minister, Netanyahu is also casting himself as Israel’s economic savior, the man to steer Israel through the choppy waters of the global financial crisis.

On Tuesday, the Sephardic religious party Shas endorsed Netanyahu for prime minister, albeit with caution.

“A strong Shas will ensure Netanyahu doesn’t repeat his mistakes,” Shas leader Eli Yishai said.

After winning the Kadima primary last September, Livni refused to strike a coalition deal with Shas, insisting she would not be forced into paying off the party with budget concessions. Supporters hailed her for refusing to give in to blackmail; critics assailed her for not having the gumption to engage in the political horse trading necessary to form a governing coalition in Israel.

As for Labor, Barak’s wartime boost has sagged as Israel’s gains from the war have begun to look more dubious. Hamas’ leadership appears to have emerged from the war mostly intact, even though the group’s infrastructure in Gaza was destroyed by the Israel Defense Forces. And on Tuesday, an Israeli soldier was killed by a roadside bomb along the Gaza-Israel border, prompting Israel to resume airstrikes in the strip.

In a bid to shore up support ahead of the election, Labor is targeting the Russian immigrant community. On Tuesday, the party launched its campaign for Russian speakers, with radio election broadcasts that allude to former Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is viewed favorably by Russian immigrants as a tough leader. Barak garnered 58 percent of the Russian vote when he won the 1999 election.

Perhaps the biggest winner to emerge from the Gaza war is Lieberman, whose right-wing party has been gaining steadily in the polls.

Lieberman, who immigrated to Israel from Moldova in 1978 and lives in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, has advocated swapping Arab-populated areas of Israel for West Bank areas populated by Jews. He was most recently embroiled in a verbal tussle with Arab lawmakers over claims that they should not be allowed to run in the elections since they are not loyal to the Jewish state.

In what Lieberman derided as an annual election tradition, police on Sunday arrested seven of his associates, including his daughter, as part of an investigation into allegations of money laundering and fraud. The investigation has been ongoing for three years but has produced no indictments.

The left-wing Meretz Party, which has steadily lost ground since its high of 12 Knesset seats in 1992, said it will attack Lieberman during the current campaign, according to an internal memo sent to Meretz leaders, Ynet reported Monday. The memo urges the leaders to cast the party as fascistic, comparing Lieberman to far-rightist leaders such as Austria’s late Joerg Haider.

The Jewish-Arab Hadash Party also is positioning itself as the anti-Lieberman, with a campaign slogan that reads “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies. Hadash — the opposite of Lieberman.” The party, which currently holds three seats in the Knesset, is trying with an Internet-based campaign to attract young, Jewish voters disaffected from other left-wing parties.

Perhaps the most unusual alliance in this year’s election is between the Green Leaf Party, which has no seats in the Knesset, and the Pensioners’ Party, which has six. Renamed the Holocaust Survivors’ and Grown-Up Green Leaf Party, the party’s prime issues are legalizing marijuana and pensioners’ rights, especially those of Holocaust survivors. One of the party’s TV ads shows party head Gil Kopatch smoking a joint at the grave of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.