Page last updated at 16:18 GMT, Monday, 19 January 2009

Israeli leaders face Gaza aftermath

By Heather Sharp
BBC News, Jerusalem

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (L) and Defence Minister Ehud Barak shake hands at a press conference in Tel Aviv (17/01/2009)
Mr Olmert and Mr Barak presented the Gaza operation as a job well done

Israel launched its operation in Gaza six weeks before elections were due. There are now just three weeks to go.

The Israeli public domain is largely awash with pictures of smiling troops returning and editorials asking "Why did we stop?", as the dust begins to settle after what one analyst described as a "text book case" of a popular Israeli war.

But political opinion polls are rising to the surface too. And despite the widespread public backing for the Israeli operation, it is not all good news for the three members of the security "kitchen cabinet" who were in the driving seat.

Outgoing caretaker Prime Minister Ehud Olmert may have somewhat burnished his legacy, blackened by the corruption claims that forced him to resign, and his heavily criticised handling of the 2006 Lebanon war.

If in the next few weeks we get more rockets coming from Hamas, people will be asking 'why did we stop?'
Prof David Nachmias

But he is on his way out anyway.

His successor as leader of the centrist Kadima Party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, is widely seen to have had a bad war.

Centre-right opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu's Likud party's lead over Kadima looks to have increased.

Polls quoted by Haaretz newspaper show Likud, on the eve of the military campaign, was set to win 32 seats in the 120-member Knesset, with Kadima on 30. Now they suggest Likud would be on 30, with Kadima down to 25.

'Delicate situation'

Ms Livni was not even present when a smiling Mr Olmert and Defence Minister Ehud Barak announced the Israeli unilateral ceasefire, giving a roll call of thanks for what they presented as a job well done.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni speaks at a news conference in Washington DC, US (16/01/2009)
Mrs Livni had been seen as a breath of fresh air in Israeli politics

Although she came back from the US bearing an agreement to tighten security on the Gaza-Egypt border, some also blame her for failing to persuade the US to veto, rather than abstain on, the UN resolution calling for a ceasefire.

And prospects for the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and Syria that have been central to Kadima's platform look shakier than ever.

Many believe the Israeli operation has further weakened the legitimacy of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the negotiating partner on the Palestinian side.

"I don't think we have a peace agenda now - Syria doesn't want to talk any more, the Palestinians are in a very delicate situation," says David Nachmias, Professor of Government at the Interdisciplinary Center, an academic institute north of Tel Aviv.

Before the operation, Ms Livni was presented as Mrs Clean, a breath of fresh air for a country tired of surly military men and politicians prone to corruption scandals.

But the past three weeks have tilted Israel's ever security-conscious voters back towards their traditional trust of military records and ties to the defence establishment.

As Haaretz puts it, "it's a different world" now, with the previously significant issues of integrity, tackling corruption and the economy eclipsed by security.

More than 1,300 Palestinians killed
Thirteen Israeli deaths
More than 4,000 buildings destroyed in Gaza, more than 20,000 severely damaged
Tens of thousands of Gazans homeless

Thus Defence Minister Ehud Barak - credited with close involvement in the planning of the operation - has seen his projected number of seats nearly double from about eight to up to 16.

A decorated former military chief of staff, but an unpopular politician, he has, for the moment, somewhat redeemed his reputation as an arrogant and untrustworthy political game-player.

But Prof Nachmias says the bounce may not last long.

"Especially if in the next few weeks we get more rockets coming from Hamas - people will be asking 'why did we stop? Why didn't we have agreements?'."

And this is the territory already marked out by Mr Netanyahu, who during the three weeks has moved from understated nationalistic loyalty to criticism of the decision to halt operations so soon.

"He was smart enough to support the war and ask for a better conclusion," says Gideon Doron, Professor of Political Science at Tel Aviv University.

"He wasn't involved in any of the politicking of the deals and played a good opposition leader," says Prof Nachmias.

Right-wing bloc

And Prof Doron points out that an electorate that was already right-leaning has moved further right, as evident in gains for the Yisrael Beiteinu party of far-right Avigdor Lieberman.

Israelis and Palestinians give their views on Israel's ceasefire announcement

"In those times when the public agenda is security, Lieberman is a good answer - 'don't trust the Arabs, be strong, very militant on the right'," he says.

At the moment, those brave enough to make predictions in this politically volatile part of the world are expecting a strong right-wing bloc headed by Mr Netanyahu to emerge from the 10 February elections.

Mr Netanyahu has been critical of Kadima's negotiations with the Palestinians, strongly opposed to any ultimate agreement that would divide Jerusalem, and hawkish on Iran.

But he has been known to compromise.

As prime minister in the late 1990s, he signed two agreements with the Palestinians - one, controversially, to give the Palestinians control of part of the West Bank town of Hebron.

Analysts say his challenge may be to steer a course between the members of the right-wing coalition he is likely to form, and any renewed push for peace the US President-elect Barack Obama may launch in the wake of the Gaza conflict.

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