February's national elections are coming 18 months early. They were set in motion in September when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced he would resign to fight corruption charges.
Before the assault on Gaza opinion polling indicated that Tzipi Livni’s Kadima was closing the gap with Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party.
The survey showed Likud winning 29 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, up from its current 12, followed by Kadima with 25. Kadima currently has 29 seats.
The poll forecast that Labour, headed by current Defense Minister Ehud Barak, will win just 10 seats, becoming the fifth largest party in parliament.
Livni – the current Foreign Minister - has been Israel's chief peace negotiator with the Palestinians over the past year. She says Israel must find a settlement to all outstanding issues, including borders, Jerusalem and the refugees.
Netanyahu wants to keep large parts of the West Bank and rejects the return of any refugees or division of Jerusalem. Instead, he proposes an “economic peace”, which Palestinian leaders have rejected.
Netanyahu also opposes contact between Israel and Syria, stating that: “A government I will head will remain on the Golan Heights and will protect it as a strategic asset". A former advocate of privatisation, he now – like the other main leaders - demands massive state intervention into the struggling Israeli economy.
Kadima was founded in 2005 by Ariel Sharon and has 80 000 members. Kadima has already selected its list with a bias towards ‘hawks’. Livni’s pre-election rhetoric has aimed to compete with Likud.
Likud has also selected its candidates. 48,500 members voted, representing about half of the party’s membership. They chose a hard-right list including outspoken supporters of Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank and opponents of a Palestinian state.
Benny Begin, the son of Likud founder and former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, is fifth on their list. He opposes further territorial concessions to the Palestinians: "All these far-reaching concessions would lead nowhere. We are on a dead-end street, there is no possibility whatsoever of reaching a peace agreement with our neighbours in the foreseeable future."
It is conceivable that a government under Netanyahu could come into conflict with the US over policy towards the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, a prominent far right Likud member, Moshe Feiglin, has been demoted on the party's candidate list.
Feiglin, a settler with extreme anti-Palestinian views who proposes withdrawing the vote from non-Jewish Israeli citizens, was originally 20th but has been moved to 36th, making his election unlikely.
Livni and Netanyahu have both promised to topple Hamas in Gaza, if elected. Barak, however, opposes a major assault on Gaza now - probably because, as Defence Minister, he has most to loose in the election, if an attack is anything short of a resounding success.
Hamas has called off their 6-month long ceasefire and has resumed rocket attacks on southern Israel. The Islamist group seems to be calculating that – pre-election - Israel will not be able to respond with masisive force. Whether intentionally or not their action (with Syria and Iran in the background) strengthens the Israeli right.
On the left of the Israeli mainstream Meretz has merged with Hatnua Hahadasha. The latest polls predict the combined list will take six or seven seats. Author Amos Oz, one of the figures behind the formation of Hatnua Hahadasha, has attacked Ehud Barak, saying that Barak wasn't the leader of the peace camp as he claimed to be.
"What kind of a man, who pretends to be the leader of the peace camp, is Barak? Who hasn't dismantled or tried to dismantle even one outpost in the past two years, who allows the hilltop youth to attack Arabs and IDF soldiers and who says he is willing to be a junior partner in Netanyahu's government?" Oz said.
Writing for the left-wing peace group, Gush Shalom, Uri Avnery states, “The choice between [Labour, Kadima and Likud] is a choice between bad, worse and still worse. Between toothache, migraine and backache. Nothing good will come out of this election. The question is only how bad the results will be.”
Avnery believes that the differences between Barak, Livni and Netanyahu are less important than what they have in common. He believes that Livni’s policy is to keep talking to the Palestinians while avoiding any real settlement.
He calls for the creation of a 4th camp, “Those who seek change must start to think anew. Those who long for a democratic, secular, progressive Israel, an Israel at peace with its neighbours and imbued with social justice within, must decide to take matters into their own hands.
“They must start a new intellectual and organisational effort to realize these important aims. No longer to be satisfied with voting for the 'lesser evil' but finally to vote for the greater good.”