- Associated Press - Monday, April 30, 2012

JERUSALEM — Israel was gripped by election fever Monday, with new balloting expected as early as the summer and polls suggesting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands a good chance of re-election — largely because of a divided opposition.

Israeli elections generally come down to a race between a conservative bloc — led by Netanyahu’s Likud Party and backed by religious parties — against a more dovish bloc. The story of this election could turn out to be the divisions in the opposition center-left bloc, where three different parties — two of them led by former journalists — plausibly contend for the top position.

“The left doesn’t have a leader — that’s the problem,” said political analyst Hanan Kristal. “They don’t have anyone that can go up against” Netanyahu.

The prime minister unleashed the furor by leaking to media on Sunday that he was considering early elections even though his term can last through late 2013. It quickly became apparent that his hand is being forced by serious disagreements between secular and religious coalition partners over the proposed drafting of Jewish seminary students.

The official side of the process was then suspended Monday morning by the death of Netanyahu’s 102-year-old father Ben-Zion, ushering in a weeklong mourning period for the premier.

Yet the looming election dominated the national discussion, the proceedings lent urgency by a sense that decision time is nearing on a panoply of major issues — from whether to attack Iran’s nuclear program and peace with the Palestinians to the corrosive internal debate over the role of religion in the Jewish state.

“The political system is irreversibly boiling over on many topics … so all the big issues are on our doorstep for the election,” said Yitzhak Herzog, one of the leaders of the opposition Labor Party.

The center-left had long been led by Labor. But in the past two elections, the Kadima Party founded in 2005 by former premier Ariel Sharon achieved primacy. Now both claim the bloc leadership, and a third party — headed by TV anchor Yair Lapid — also appears to be a significant force.

A poll published Monday by the Dahaf institute showed the two blocs about evenly matched — with the right winning 61 out of 120 Knesset seats, substantially less than the majority it won in 2009. The poll of 500 people had a four-seat margin of error.

But whereas Likud dominated the right with 30 seats, the picture on the left was far more complex: Labor came out on top with 18, while Kadima, the current top party in the bloc, had 11 — tied with Lapid’s Yesh Atid (There is a Future), which currently exists mainly on paper.

The poll was similar to other recent surveys. It also showed results changing based on different scenarios of politicians combining forces.

Kristal, the analyst, said that Shelly Yachomovich, the former radio newswoman who won Labor’s leadership primary several months ago, is not seen by most of the public as a credible candidate for prime minister. Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz, a former military chief and defense minister, is much more in the traditional mold of Israeli leaders — yet his party seems to be falling behind.

“Whoever doesn’t want a right-wing prime minister must vote for Shaul Mofaz,” Tsachi Hanegbi, a top Kadima figure, told Israel Radio.

Netanyahu is expected to consult with coalition partners after the mourning period ends, next week. Several religious lawmakers said Monday that the religious parties in his coalition would prefer elections in October. Others have called for the balloting to be held as early as August to minimize the period of uncertainty.

The political developments followed an unusual episode in which Netanyahu came under blistering attack over the weekend from Yuval Diskin, former head of the Shin Bet internal security agency. Diskin criticized Netanyahu’s threats to attack Iran and inactivity on the Palestinian front, saying he had “no faith” in the country’s political leadership.

Adding to Netanyahu’s headaches are two Supreme Court decisions that threaten his coalition.

In one, the court ordered the government to dismantle by July 15 an illegal West Bank settlement outpost — a move that faces tough opposition from hard-line coalition allies.

Netanyahu also faces a Supreme Court-ordered Aug. 1 deadline to scrap draft exemptions for tens of thousands of religious seminary students — a prospect certain to spark strenuous opposition from the religious parties on which his majority depends. If he tries to extend the exemptions, trouble looms with his powerful foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman of the secular Yisrael Beitenu party.

That situation — a legal and political cul-de-sac — has led some to predict that even if Netanyahu’s bloc retains its majority he will prefer to establish a centrist coalition with some of the more dovish parties over a renewed alliance with the religious groups.

Ian Deitch contributed to this report.