Israeli voters go to the polls Feb. 10 to elect a new parliament and a new prime minister. But the election has taken a back seat to the war in Gaza, and political parties have suspended their campaign activities.
There are three main political parties: the right-wing Likud, the left-wing Labor Party and the centrist Kadima, which leads the current government.
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the Likud. The current foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, is Kadima's candidate. And the current defense minister, Ehud Barak, leads Labor.
The outcome of the Gaza war could have a profound effect on all three.
One Eye On Gaza, One Eye On Israeli Public
Elections in Israel are usually boisterous affairs, featuring numerous rallies, reams of posters, attack ads on TV and often fiery rhetoric.
This time around, the election campaign has gone quiet. The three leading candidates are well aware that any misstep during this war could sink their electoral prospects, says Reuven Hazan, a political analyst at Hebrew University.
"We know that the operation in Gaza — and the way that it ends — will impact on who's going to win these election results. And therefore, the politicians are making decisions with one eye looking at Gaza and the other eye at the public," he says.
Netanyahu appears to be the candidate to beat. Recent polls suggest his Likud Party, which is not part of the current government coalition, could win a plurality of 30 to 35 seats in Israel's 120-seat parliament, known as the Knesset.
Passive Observer, Active Participants
Netanyahu has been quiet, and there is nothing else he can do, says Efraim Inbar, the director of the conservative Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
"He's playing the statesmen role, and he doesn't want to be seen as playing narrow politics and maybe taking advantage of difficulties in the war," Inbar says. "This will benefit him when the war ends."
Nothing that Netanyahu does can determine the outcome of the war, in contrast to Livni, the foreign minister, and Barak, the defense minister.
Barak's Labor Party is trailing, with recent polls showing him likely to win only about 15 seats in the Knesset. Barak may get a boost from the war, but likely not enough to leap to victory.
Livni is Netanyahu's real challenge. Her Kadima Party may win close to 30 seats in the Knesset, so if she is perceived to be a real leader during the war, voters may reward her with victory.
The war has turned Netanyahu, uncharacteristically, into a passive candidate, says Hebrew University's Hazan.
"Netanyahu is simply sitting it out, hoping that something will go wrong politically so that he can continue to capitalize in the polls. He simply has to wait, be magnanimous now, and then turn around once the operation is over and say, 'I told you so. We should never have gone out of Gaza; we should have gone after them in a much better way,' " Hazan says.
Israel pulled its settlers and soldiers out of Gaza in 2005 after occupying the territory for 38 years. Netanyahu opposed the decision then, and he has advocated coming down hard on Hamas ever since.
Netanyahu says he approves of the government's war to end the rocket attacks from Gaza.
"The government has had and will continue to have my support to achieve this objective," he says. "I have also said that Hamas, a terror organization that is committed to our destruction, must ultimately be removed from Gaza. Should the government decide to complete that objective, it will also have our support."
Arab Parties To Fight Ban
Another significant development in the election campaign is a decision by the Central Election Committee on Jan. 12 to ban two Arab parties from running candidates. The committee accused Balad and the United Arab List of supporting terrorists and refusing to recognize the Jewish state of Israel. Right now, they hold three seats each in the Knesset.
Arabs comprise about 20 percent of Israel's 7 million people. Jafar Farah, of the Mossawa Center, an advocacy group for Arab citizens of Israel, says the ban is an indication of the limitations of democracy in Israel.
"We are Palestinians, we are Arabs, and we are citizens of the state of Israel. And [because of] this unique status, the international community and the Israelis should listen to our voice," he says. "We know the suffering in Gaza better than any Israeli. This voice is a complicated one in this reality because everybody wants to see black and white here. We are not black and white ... and I don't think that the Arab political parties are supporting any kind of terror."
The two Arab parties will appeal the ruling to Israel's High Court, which has overturned similar bans in the past.