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Israeli PM Netanyahu suddenly seems vulnerable

Wednesday - 11/28/2012, 3:04am  ET

FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012 file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the national police headquarters in Jerusalem. Netanyahu, who appeared to be cruising to victory a few weeks ago, suddenly appears vulnerable as national elections approach. His Likud Party's selection of an exceptionally hard-line slate of candidates, coupled with the political return of a popular former foreign minister could galvanize Israel's divided opposition.(AP Photo/Gali Tibbon, Pool, File)

JOSEF FEDERMAN

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who appeared to be cruising to re-election a few weeks ago, suddenly appears vulnerable as the country prepares to go to the polls in January.

The political comeback of a popular former foreign minister on Tuesday, coupled with the ruling Likud Party's selection of an especially hard-line slate of candidates, has suddenly raised questions about Netanyahu's prospects. Eager to portray Netanyahu as an extremist, opposition parties see an opportunity to mount a formidable challenge to the Israeli leader.

Ousting Netanyahu remains a formidable task, but the return of Tzipi Livni, who served as Israel's foreign minister and chief peace negotiator from 2006 to 2009, injected a high-profile name into what had been a lackluster race. Well respected internationally, Livni immediately took aim at what she called a "leadership vacuum" and promised an aggressive push for peace with the Palestinians.

"I came to fight for peace," she said. "And I won't allow anyone to turn peace into a bad word."

During Netanyahu's nearly four years in office, peace efforts with the Palestinians have remained frozen.

The Palestinians refuse to resume talks unless Israel stops building settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, occupied areas that the Palestinians claim for an independent state.

Netanyahu blames the Palestinians for the deadlock. The prime minister imposed a partial freeze on settlement construction early in his term, leading to a brief attempt to resume negotiations. But Netanyahu refused to extend the construction slowdown, and the talks quickly collapsed. He says talks should resume without any preconditions.

The deadlock has pushed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to head to the United Nations this week to upgrade the Palestinian observer mission to "nonmember state" status. The General Assembly is expected to pass the request.

The Palestinians believe the international endorsement, while largely symbolic, will bolster their position if negotiations resume. Israel, backed by the United States, opposes the bid and has been furiously lobbying allies to oppose it, saying all differences must be resolved through negotiations. In a setback for Netanyahu, France announced Tuesday that it would vote in favor of the Palestinians.

At a time when there are no talks with the Western-backed government of Abbas, Israel this week opened an indirect dialogue with Abbas' rival, the Islamic militant Hamas movement, as part of a cease-fire that ended an Israeli military offensive in the Gaza Strip last week. Israel considers Hamas, which seized control of Gaza five years ago, a terrorist group.

"Everything is upside down: a government that negotiates with terrorists and freezes all dialogue with those who work to prevent attacks," Livni said.

Livni told the audience that the fighting in Gaza, in which her youngest son was mobilized to Israel's southern front, had factored into her decision to return to politics.

"A week ago when my youngest son, today an officer in the Paratroopers, went down south, I sent him a text message that I had decided to fight on my turf, politics, so that he maybe won't have to fight on his turf, the battlefield," she said.

Throughout his term, Netanyahu relied on a handful of moderate figures in his Cabinet to blunt international opposition. Following a pair of events this week, Netanyahu appears to have lost this political cover.

On Monday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak resigned from politics. Barak, a former prime minister, had often served as Netanyahu's unofficial envoy to Washington to ease tensions with the White House.

Then Monday night, Netanyahu's Likud Party announced its slate of candidates for the Jan. 22 election.

The list was dominated by hard-line supporters of West Bank settlements. Some candidates have alienated mainstream Israelis with failed attempts in parliament to stifle dissent and rein in a Supreme Court that they believe is too independent. In addition, several prominent moderates were effectively ousted. Netanyahu's decision to join forces with the ultranationalist party headed by his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has added to concerns that his next coalition will be too hard line for many.

Menachem Hofnung, a Hebrew University political scientist, said the Likud could have a hard time appealing to centrist voters with its new list. "After seeing the Likud's results, the race is (wide) open," he said.

Livni, 54, joins a field that includes the centrist Labor Party, led by former journalist Shelly Yachimovich, and the centrist "Yesh Atid," led by former anchorman Yair Lapid.

While largely similar in ideology, these rival parties have focused largely on domestic economic issues. Livni made clear her new party, called "The Movement," would focus on resuming peace efforts.

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