Likud leading election polls with 29 seats, in wake of Gaza operation
First surveys following war see Kadima winning 26 seats in February election, compared to 14 for Labor.
The first poll conducted about Israel's upcoming parliamentary elections since the end of the offensive in Gaza show Likud as the front-runner with 29 seats.
The Channel 10-Dialog poll supervised by Professor Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University predicted Kadima would win 26 seats and the Labor Party getting 14 seats, the same number as Yisrael Beiteinu.
Though surveys on Sunday predicted center-left Labor would win 14 or 15 of the 120 seats in parliament - almost double that previously forecast - former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party was still in the lead.
A similar poll conducted by Channel 2 has Likud set to win as many as 31 seats, with Kadima party taking between 23 and 26, with the February 9 elections just about three weeks away.
The party that captures the largest number of seats is usually tapped to try to put together a government.
Kadima's popularity has been hit by public discontent over the 2005 Gaza pullout it led and corruption scandals that forced Ehud Olmert to resign as the party's leader and prime minister.
Olmert has been serving as caretaker prime minister until a new government is formed after next month's election.
Israeli public support for the offensive, launched on Dec. 27 to counter Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza, has been strong, though Hamas continued with its salvoes during the air and ground operation.
"It's not enough to make Barak prime minister, but it almost guarantees him a top spot in the next government," said political scientist Hani Zubida of Israel's Interdisciplinary Centre.
Netanyahu has been a favorite in polls since Israel's 2006 Lebanon war against Hezbollah guerrillas, a conflict widely regarded in Israel as a failure.
Answering what he described as an appeal from Olmert, Netanyahu gave numerous interviews during the Gaza war to foreign media as part of a campaign to counter international criticism of Israeli attacks that caused civilian casualties.
Like other political leaders, he suspended campaigning during the conflict and said nothing in criticism of the way it was conducted.
"Bibi played his cards right. The Gaza offensive was the last thing he wanted before the elections, but he stayed quiet and handled it well," Zubida said.
Much could depend on the public perception in Israel over whether the Gaza campaign has achieved its goals.
Continued Hamas rocket fire or failure to stop the Islamist group from rearming could bite into Barak's newfound popularity, political commentators said.
Livni's chances to become prime minister could depend on whether the international diplomatic support she secured for efforts to halt weapons smuggling to Hamas chokes off supply.
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