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Though Gaza looms large, Israelis also have elections to think about

By Ashley Fantz, CNN
updated 9:28 AM EST, Thu November 22, 2012
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is popular among Israelis.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is popular among Israelis.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Elections are to be held in Israel on January 22
  • Experts say the Gaza situation is unlikely to affect the outcome of the voting
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has set up a broad-based government
  • CNN speaks with Middle East expert Robert M. Danin about the situation

Are you affected by the conflict? Share photos and video, but stay safe.

(CNN) -- In the background of the drama playing out in Gaza and southern Israel, an election looms. On January 22, Israelis will go to the polls for early parliamentary voting.

In October, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the early elections to ensure "a responsible security and economic policy" in the face of the economic downturn and threats to Israel's security from Iran and elsewhere. He took the step after failing to reach agreement on a budget with his coalition partners.

Is the recent fighting and hours-old cease-fire between Israel and Hamas likely to affect the elections? Probably not, experts said this week.

Over the past several years, Netanyahu has established a broad-based government, including both right-wing parties such as Likud, religious parties such as Haredi, and the left-leaning Labor Party.

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CNN spoke about the situation with Robert M. Danin, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute.

Netanyahu has been in power for seven years. What kind of reputation does he have amongst Israelis?

Netanyahu is wildly popular among Israelis, and the offensive in Gaza has not lessened his standing. Over 90% of the populace who responded to a recent poll said they supported the operation Gaza, Danin said.

That kind of poll result is common in the early days of a military operation, particularly when Israel is able to record successes on the ground, Rubin said.

Generally, Netanyahu is regarded as a tough talker. In the run-up to the United States presidential election, he threatened to strike Iran.

How the Middle East has changed

If a cease-fire in Gaza doesn't hold, and Israel moves forward with a ground operation, would that affect Netanyahu's election odds in January?

A ground operation makes it "much more politically risky for Netanyahu," Danin said, adding that the prime minister would have to deal with the loss of Israeli lives, and that could dial down popular support.

It's possible that if the cease-fire doesn't hold, the election could be postponed, he said.

Both Danin and Rubin were cautious in saying that there are too many variables in play in Gaza now to determine comfortably how an election on January 22 might play out.

Timeline: Israel-Gaza conflict

Some have said that Netanyahu's moves toward Gaza are politically motivated. Do you agree?

Danin and Rubin dismissed any notion that Netanyahu is acting aggressively toward Gaza for political reasons.

If you're popular, why take the risk of a military operation, and especially a ground invasion that could sacrifice Israeli lives?

"When you're going to (initiate a) ground operation, you don't know how it's going to end or rebound politically," Danin said. "This is not a prime minister known for taking great risks."

How the conflict reignited

Is there anything that could really hurt Netanyahu in January?

Both analysts said Netanyahu's "worst nightmare" politically would be if a ground offensive led to the abduction of an Israeli soldier.

That would hearken back to the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli citizen who was a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. Hamas militants abducted him inside Israel in a raid near the border with Gaza in 2006. He was held for more than five years and released in October 2011.

"Hamas would love nothing more than a repeat of Shalit," Danin said.

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