ISRAEL

Likud's hardline campaign on security set to sweep elections

Polls show Israel's right-wing Likud party holding on to its lead for the February 10 elections. Boosted by its hardline security campaign amid massive public support for the Gaza offensive, it may garner a majority of 63 seats in Parliament.

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AFP - Rightwing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu looks set to profit from Israel's military assault on the Gaza Strip, stretching his lead in the polls for the February 10 elections.

The Likud party chairman totally opposes an Israeli withdrawal from Arab territories occupied since 1967 and is campaigning on a platform of security for Israelis.

Traditional rightwing leitmotifs such as Greater Israel or the spread of Israeli settlements are kept well in the background.

The 22-day Operation Cast Lead against Hamas Islamists may have been considered a military success for Israel but the ruling Kadima party of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has not reaped the benefits.

The opposition, which opposed Israel's 2005 withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantling of settlements, cheered the December 27 launch of the assault saying, "we told you so."

The government stands accused of stopping the operation too soon when it could have wiped out Hamas and totally stopped rocket fire on southern Israel. The far-right Israel Beitenou has proved particularly successful with this theme and is rising strongly in the polls.

Yoel Hasson, head of Kadima's parliamentary group warned Friday: "A Netanyahu victory would bring extremists to power and such a government could only have terrible relations with the United States."

Yet Netanyahu remains the clear favourite to lead the next government but he would prefer to front a national unity coalition rather than have to rely on far-right parties.

Netanyahu has been able to set himself above the fray and cultivate the image of a responsible leader. He has even offered his approval of the way defence minister and Labour party leader Ehud Barak carried out the Gaza operation despite a supposedly weak and interfering government.

The Likud chairman, a former finance minister and free market champion, is promising voters major tax cuts to meet the world economic crisis that is starting to hit Israel.

Netanyahu is vague on the Middle East peace process saying he supports broad autonomy for the Palestinians but opposes the creation of a true state with real sovereign powers.

He offers "no future concessions without reciprocity from the Palestinians" underlining that his peace policy will be guided by "give and take."

The ex-prime minister says he will have no problem with Barack Obama's administration although the new US president has vowed "to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians as well as Israel and its Arab neighbours."

Two opinion polls published Friday show Likud is holding on to its lead following the Gaza ceasefire.

With just 12 seats in the 120-member parliament today, Likud would emerge with 29 MPs, according to surveys in the Maariv and Yediot Ahronoth newspapers.

In coalition with Jewish religious parties Israel Beitenou, a Likud-led bloc would garner a majority of 62-63 seats.

Beitenou, founded by former Soviet Jews and led by hardliner Avigdor Lieberman, would win 14-16 seats over 11 today. Extremist religious parties were however tipped to lose seats.

The ruling centre-right Kadima party led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni would take 24-25 seats, against 29 in the current Knesset.

The centre-left Labour Party headed by Defence Minister Ehud Barak would have 16-17 MPs, against 19 today.

Netanyahu has already been elected by Israeli media.

"Netanyahu-Lieberman government," said the popular Maariv daily. "Israel closes ranks with the right," said the Yediot Ahronot.

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