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Analysis: Israel's Netanyahu faces wild cards

Sunday - 10/14/2012, 4:44pm  ET

By DAN PERRY

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) - The Israeli government has called a general election for Jan. 22, and polls suggest Benjamin Netanyahu's rightist-religious coalition is likely to win a renewed majority _ but an array of wild cards make the outcome of this campaign unpredictable nonetheless.

The stakes are high: A Netanyahu re-election could make an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear program more likely, risking regional war and global economic crisis. And it could end whatever small chance still exists of a genuine Israeli pullout from even parts of the West Bank _ something the Israeli opposition is almost desperate to bring about, but Netanyahu's nationalist allies fervently oppose.

The vote also comes at a pivotal point in the increasingly acrimonious cultural clash between Western-oriented liberals and Netanyahu's resilient alliance of social conservatives, security hawks and fundamentalist Jews.

That dichotomy is mirrored in Israel's traditional electoral map, a bewildering affair that nonetheless reduces to two rival "blocs" vying for 61 out of 120 Knesset seats _ the threshold needed to form a government.

The "left" bloc, historically led by the Labor Party, wants the West Bank and Gaza _ captured from Jordan and Egypt respectively in the 1967 war _ either traded for peace or separated from Israel in some other way to protect a Jewish majority within "Israel proper." Jews currently make up about three-quarters of Israel's population, but when the West Bank and Gaza are included, the breakdown between Jews and Arabs is close to 50/50. Smaller dovish groups and parties from Israel's Arab minority are also in this bloc.

The "right" bloc is led by Netanyahu's Likud, which historically has been hostile to territorial concessions. Netanyahu now says he is ready for a limited Palestinian state in some of the West Bank _ yet his government continues to build Jewish settlements deep inside it and few take him at his word. Rounding out the bloc are even more nationalist groupings and religious parties eager to deepen the Jewish character of the state.

Polls suggest the right could win about 65 Knesset seats _ a near-default majority that has mostly held for decades, built in part by the demographic advantage of a religious minority with high birthrates.

It is only occasionally overturned, either by circumstance or machination: An experiment with direct election of the prime minister resulted in a win for Labor's Ehud Barak in 1999. The defection of Likud Prime Minister Ariel Sharon _ creator of the centrist Kadima Party that cannibalized Likud and ended up in the left bloc _ led to the more dovish Ehud Olmert serving as premier from 2006-9.

The new campaign presents a significant number of wild cards that could affect the result:

THE CENTER

Popular dissatisfaction with the left-right dichotomy occasionally gives rise to "centrist parties" that claim they might align with either bloc. But these days such parties _ whose support and makeup generally reflects the secular and Westernized side of Israel _ find their natural location with the left, as Kadima did, and amount to a device for taking votes from the right.

The newest centrist offering is Yesh Atid (There Is A Future), built around the popularity of 49-year-old Yair Lapid _ a former TV news anchor, talk show host, newspaper columnist, movie star, mystery novelist and amateur boxer. Polls show he could lead one of the largest parties, with up to 19 seats. Depending on whom he chooses to run by his side, he seems to have a shot at taking votes from the right.

A RIVAL

Whereas Netanyuahu is unchallenged in his bloc, the left is splintered into at least three mid-sized parties: a somewhat resurgent Labor, with former journalist Shelly Yachimovich as its leader, running mostly on social issues such as redistribution of wealth; Kadima, now led by the relatively unpopular former military chief Shaul Mofaz; and Yesh Atid.

There is tremendous pressure on them to unite, driven by the idea that this would change the psychology of the race and draw support greater than the sum of the left's current parts. Indeed, a poll in the Jerusalem Post found that a unified party would outpoll Likud and become the largest party.

Would that be enough to crack the advantage of the wider right bloc? That may depend on whether a galvanizing figure is brought in to lead it.

The current speculation focuses on an Olmert comeback, which he is believed to be considering and which would be a gamble. Forced from office four years ago by a corruption scandal, he has been cleared of most charges but still faces trial in a bribery case. The backup is Tzipi Livni, Olmert's foreign minister and a former Kadima leader _ who is also said to be mulling the creation of yet another centrist party.

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