JERUSALEM — Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip produced mixed results in the Palestinian territory, but it may have a more decisive effect on Israel's Feb. 10 elections for a new government.
In the wake of the operation, which was intended to halt rocket attacks on southern Israel and weaken the militant Islamist group Hamas, which controls Gaza, opinion polls indicate growing support for right-wing political parties that favor tougher measures to deal with the Palestinians and their supporters in Iran, Syria and elsewhere.
That's unwelcome news for the new Obama administration, which on Thursday appointed former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell to lead a new effort to negotiate peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
The polls indicate that the Gaza operation has weakened moderate parties such as Kadima and Labor and bolstered hard-line ones such as Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, which are less amenable to compromising with the Palestinians on key issues such as control of Jerusalem and the right of Jews to settle in the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in 1967.
Furthermore, Hebrew University political science Professor Reuven Hazan points out, every Israeli government is made up of a coalition of parties. "The name of the game in Israel is not about individual parties, it's about forming a government," he said.
In order to form a government, a leader needs the support of at least 61 members of the 120-seat Knesset, Israel's parliament, and current polls have found the right-wing bloc winning 65 seats.
Yehuda Ben Meir, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, warns that some polls show only a five-seat difference between the parties and many people undecided. "One month of quiet in the south," he said, "could play into the hands of Kadima and Labor."
Hazan, however, said that undecided voters "will not break to the left."
He argues that the entire Israeli political spectrum is turning rightward "as a result of the rise of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. Israelis are not voting with their pocketbooks," he said. "They are voting for the person who can guarantee their safety."
If the polls hold steady, Ben Meir said, Likud leader and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would most likely form a broad coalition that included the moderate Labor and Kadima Parties. Such a bloc, Ben Meir said, "Will paralyze him politically and bring him into conflict with the American administration."
Zalman Shoval, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and a member of Netanyahu's foreign policy team, said that Netanyahu could create a coalition of right-wing parties, but he remembers that a similar coalition collapsed and cost him his job after he signed the 1998 Wye River Agreement with the Palestinians. That agreement, brokered by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, collapsed in a Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 2000.
The U.S.-educated Netanyahu, however, seems to be banking on a close relationship with the U.S., telling a group of industrialists recently that he wants to help solve Israel's credit crisis by using $4 billion in American credits.
The biggest potential conflict between a Netanyahu government and the Obama administration probably would be the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Ben Meir said.
The settlements issue also could be a domestic problem for Netanyahu, Ben Meir said, because his right-wing allies would oppose any concessions to the Palestinians, but many other Israelis would support them.
"To enter into a conflict with the American government over something where there is a national consensus is one thing, but to confront American over something which splits the Israeli public is very dangerous," Ben Meir said.
Mitchell, the new U.S. Mideast envoy, has been critical of settlements and has been criticized by Israelis who felt that he compared settlement construction to terrorism.
Shoval, however, said he sees no problem with a Netanyahu government working with Mitchell, who contributed to the Bush administration's so-called roadmap to Mideast peace, some aspects of which could be revived.
However, Shoval said that Mitchell's experience in to negotiate an end to the conflict between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland may be of limited help in the Middle East.
"He needs to realize that Israel is not Northern Ireland," Shoval said. "He says any problem can be solved, but some problems take a long time to solve."
Moreover, while the Obama administration is aiming at a Mideast peace agreement, Netanyahu's platform calls for the implementation of "Economic Peace."
According to Shoval, this calls for Israel and the Palestinians to recognize that a long-term political solution is unrealistic at this time, and therefore efforts should be concentrated on building up the Palestinian economic infrastructure.
When Obama visited Israel, Shoval said, he spoke to Netanyahu about the Israeli politicians' ideas. "We had a positive reaction from Obama," Shoval said. "He saw them as interesting and new ideas. A new president does not automatically want to continue the same track as his predecessor especially when they did not succeed."
(Churgin is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY