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:
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.
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.
Gabi Ashkenazi, who was military chief until last year, is so popular that it is generally accepted that the recent law freezing top security officials out of politics for three years after their retirement was formulated mostly to keep him from leading the left against Netanyahu -- and so in popular parlance it bears his name.
Taciturn and tough-looking, with security credentials and of politically useful mixed European and Middle Eastern heritage, he is believed to have strong appeal to the right. The much-discussed scenario has him campaigning for the left under the understanding that if the bloc wins it would repeal the "Ashkenazi Law" and appoint him defense minister.
Although the right bloc has propped Netanyahu nicely for four years, two potential defections exist. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the mid-sized Yisrael Beiteinu party, is an aggressive nationalist who nonetheless took part in the last Kadima government, is bitter about a years-long corruption investigation, and harbors ambitions of leading the right bloc that suggest an interest in seeing Netanyahu go down. And Arieh Deri, the only major ultra-Orthodox leader who is seen as moderate on the Palestinians, is returning to politics after a jail spell and a long hiatus; if he is not reinstated as head of the religious Shas Party many expect him to run against it, taking some of its dozen-odd seats and possibly delivering them to the left.
Some in Netanyahu's circle cast the election as a referendum on attacking Iran -- or at least on Israel's right to act militarily to prevent the Islamic Republic from achieving nuclear weapons capability. Normally, on security issues, Israelis do turn hawkish at the polls.
But this one is complicated: The security establishment considers the talk of an attack reckless and seems to oppose the idea; much of the world is arrayed against the notion, seeking more time for economic sanctions to force Iran's hand; and polls show the Israeli public -- fearing a massive counterstrike including missiles on their cities and mayhem on their borders -- opposes any move that is not coordinated with the United States. It could make very uncomfortable campaigning for Netanyahu.
IT'S THE ECONOMY
Netanyahu supporters nonetheless hope the election hinges on the usual strategic issues, especially the Palestinians. On that well-worn ground, Likud is helped by the perception here that the Palestinians are sticking to unreasonably maximalist positions -- including a division of Jerusalem that would mean a potentially tense border running right through the downtown of the holy city.
But if the left can change the discourse, Netanyahu is vulnerable on two issues.
So many Israelis are unhappy with the economy -- surprisingly good macroeconomic figures alongside tremendous income gaps and widespread poverty -- that a social protest movement largely aimed against the government last year sent hundreds of thousands to the streets. If this becomes an election issue it could galvanize the left vote -- which historically, unlike the disciplined masses of the religious right, tends to be lazy on election day.
And Netanyahu is dangerously exposed on the question of ending the current system of draft exemptions for tens of thousands in the burgeoning ultra-Orthodox minority -- ordered earlier this year by the Supreme Court, supported by most Israelis, and largely ignored by his government. The secular majority, including many on the right, is increasingly alarmed by Orthodox efforts to segregate the sexes in public, their widespread reliance on state handouts, and their school system, which turns out Torah scholars who know little English or math and have few skills for the work world. Netanyahu's utter dependence on their parties' votes for the right bloc's majority could focus minds, drive away the center and amount to his Achilles' heel in this campaign.
Dan Perry has covered the Mideast since the 1990s and currently leads AP's coverage in the region. Follow him at twitter.com/perry_dan