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The Globe and Mail

Netanyahu’s in – his drama’s on the right

As the Israeli election campaign enters its home stretch, the landscape facing voters is clear. History and loyalty to parties are trumped by individual leaders and candidates; political discourse has moved to the right; and a fragmented, weak centre-left bloc is challenging a strong right-wing one.

Admittedly, polls aren't necessarily accurate. A third of Israelis are undecided, leaving some 30 parliamentary seats up for grabs. And voter turnout – still high compared with other democracies – may continue its decade-long decline. Nevertheless, Benjamin Netanyahu will head the next government. The unexpected drama in the campaign's last weeks is his battle for votes on the right. (Election day is Jan. 22.)

Analyst Lev Greenberg's dubbed this campaign one of "Star Wars" rather than "party wars." A core of ideological voters remains loyal to parties with roots in history, but the newer phenomenon is parties with candidates who share little but the leader's invitation to come on board. (In Israel's proportional representation system, parties present lists, and the number of their Knesset seats is determined by their proportional number of votes.) In a country where ideology traditionally came first, this personalization of politics results in shifting allegiances and vagueness in policy.

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But vagueness can't mask the pervasive swing to the right in the country's political discourse, which mirrors public attitudes that have deepened over the past decade. Scarred by the bloody Palestinian intifada of 2000, wars in Lebanon and Hamas-dominated Gaza and ongoing rocket attacks, Israelis have little appetite for an agreement with Palestinians even though, in principle, they support the notion of two states. The centrist Kadima party, for which the two-state solution was primary and which did well in 2009, will be decimated come January.

The shift is striking in the governing Likud. In October, to cement his hold on power, Mr. Netanyahu merged Likud with then-foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu and renamed his party Likud Beiteinu. (The hard-line Mr. Lieberman has since resigned his ministerial post pending indictment on charges of breach of trust, but he'll serve in a senior Knesset post at least until an indictment is issued.) In November, Likud party primaries ousted longstanding moderates from the list and gave senior slots to ideologues for whom Israel's territorial interests in the West Bank come first.

What has caught Mr. Netanyahu by surprise is a serious challenge from the Jewish Home, a national religious party to his right that's fast gaining popularity. Naftali Bennett, its charismatic leader, unequivocally opposes a Palestinian state and believes Israel should annex large swaths of the West Bank. To combat Mr. Bennett's direct attacks and prevent a discernible leakage of votes, Mr. Netanyahu has hardened his own rhetoric on settlements, while senior Likud Beiteinu figures such as Education Minister Gideon Saar now reject inclusion of a Palestinian state in the party's policy. With Mr. Bennett as a natural coalition partner, any campaign-inspired tough talk may not soften even after January.

On the centre-left, only the Meretz party and former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni's new Hatnuah (the Movement) have made the Palestinian issue a priority. Meretz is consistent but marginal. Ms. Livni returned to politics expressly to promote a deal with the Palestinians – but isn't running alone. She's competing with Labour, whose platform calls for two states but whose leader, Shelly Yachimovich, insists that socio-economic issues are more important than peace and security; and with Yesh Atid, whose leader, Yair Lapid, is a successful journalist lacking political and diplomatic experience. They failed to form a strategic alliance during the campaign and are as unlikely to form a unified opposition bloc.

Labour and Yesh Atid won't rule out joining the next Netanyahu government, making the doubtful claim that they'll moderate its positions. In contrast, Ms. Livni has declared that, to even consider the option, Mr. Netanyahu would have to accept her policy on the Palestinians.

If the 2009 Israeli election is any guide, Mr. Netanyahu will try to include a moderate party in his coalition to counter domestic right-wing pressure and project a more palatable image at home and abroad. (Labour joined in 2009, and then left.) But given the altered face of Likud, the merger with Mr. Lieberman and the leverage Mr. Bennett will have, a choice to join his coalition would be unfortunate. If the shape of the next government is virtually assured, the country will need a strong opposition more than ever.

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