By Allyn Fisher-Ilan
JERUSALEM, Dec 29 (Reuters) - Israel’s bomb and missile offensive in Gaza may boost voter support for Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in her bid to defeat frontrunner Benjamin Netanyahu in the Feb. 10 election.
An Israeli television poll showed 81 percent of Israelis backed the massive attacks on the coastal strip, ruled by the Islamist group Hamas, in a bid to stop Palestinian militants firing rockets into southern Israel.
Whether Livni can defeat the right-wing leader at the polls may depend on whether Israel achieves its objective without incurring heavy Israeli civilian or military casualties, analysts said.
Both Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak are gambling with their political careers by launching this attack on Hamas, they said.
"If they hadn’t taken action, they would have been finished politically," though the outcome is uncertain, said Shmuel Sandler of Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv.
He said the Christmas holiday, the global economic crisis and the presidential interregnum in the United States made for good timing for Israel to launch its offensive after Hamas declared its 6-month-old truce with Israel dead on Dec. 19.
"Hamas didn’t understand how they fell into a trap, between Washington not functioning at Christmas and all eyes turned on the world economic crisis," Sandler said.
About 325 Palestinians, including some 60 civilians, have been killed in three days of devastating Israeli air attacks on Gaza, whose Hamas rulers advocate armed resistance to Israel and deny the Jewish state’s right to exist.
Livni, 50, succeeded outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as head of the ruling centrist Kadima party after he stepped down over a police corruption probe in September. He remains in office as caretaker premier, pending the election.
NETANYAHU LEAD SHRINKS
Most polls predict Netanyahu will win the election. But a survey televised on Sunday night, a day after Israel launched its Gaza offensive, showed Livni gaining ground on Netanyahu’s Likud party, and trailing him by just two parliamentary seats.
The survey broadcast by Israel’s Channel 10 television also showed a rise of four points in support for Defence Minister Ehud Barak, 66, a former premier and army chief, and prime ministerial candidate of the left-of-centre Labour party.
Political observers said the impact of the offensive on the election would be important but not decisive because polling was some way off. Livni and Barak may lose support if Israel sustains heavy casualties or fails to halt rocket fire from Gaza, analysts said. "We know the immediate effect has been an improvement in public standing for Livni and Barak. We don’t know how long that will last," said Mark Heller, a strategic analyst at Tel Aviv University.
"Livni may take a bite out of support for Netanyahu, but it’s too early to say whether she will defeat him," said political scientist Sandler.
Many experts believe it was strong public pressure on the government to halt rocket and mortar fire from Gaza, and not electioneering tactics, that triggered the Israeli offensive.
The Gaza rockets have caused few casualties in nearby areas of southern Israel but damaged homes and caused panic among local residents.
"I don’t think at the end of the day that electoral considerations entered into this. Israel couldn’t sustain the massive rocket fire and had to act," said Michael Oren, analyst at the Shalem Institute, a Jerusalem think-tank. (Editing by Tim Pearce)