As Benjamin Netanyahu slowly made his way through crowds of adoring supporters on Tuesday night, it looked as if one of the most important battles of the election campaign was already behind him.

Whether he will indeed emerge as Israel’s next prime minister will only be known after polling day on February 10. But he can enter the final stretch of campaigning safe in the knowledge that the entire election has shifted on to a terrain where Mr Netanyahu and his Likud party hold a natural advantage: security.

Both his campaign managers and his foot soldiers understand the message. One song that was repeated over and over again before Mr Netanyahu’s arrival proclaimed “Strong Likud, strong Israel”, while the party’s campaign slogans are filled with references to “security” and “strength”.

The theme was echoed by Likud supporters. Medina Aloni, a smartly dressed woman waiting outside the conference hall, said she would vote Likud because “we have to keep our strength and our security, and [Mr Netanyahu] understands security”.

Paradoxically, it is Mr Netanyahu’s opponents in the governing coalition who have done more than anyone else to thrust the issue of security into the spotlight. After three weeks of war against the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, themes such as the economy, education, corruption or the quest for peace with the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab neighbours have been largely sidelined.

Analysts say the country’s military offensive has, rightly or wrongly, shown voters that relinquishing territory in the hope of attaining peace with the Palestinians is a losing game. As a result, parties that until recently championed peace talks with the Palestinians, such as the governing Kadima and Labour parties but even the leftwing Meretz, have been forced to shift their rhetoric to the right.

Menachem Hofnung, a professor of political sciences at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, says the 2009 electoral dynamics are familiar from earlier campaigns. “The trend is that if there are security tensions it usually works in favour of the hawkish and rightwing parties . . . In times of tensions, Israeli-Jewish voters lean towards leaders who promise them more security and are not toying with peaceful solutions that depend on the goodwill of the Arabs.”

Other rightwing groups such as the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party are also forecast to do well on February 10.

Overall, rightwing and nationalist parties are expected to win as many as 50 seats in the 120-seat Israeli parliament. Traditionally dovish parties such as Labour and Meretz are likely to capture no more than 22.

The new emphasis on security, deterrence and strength poses a particular headache for Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister, leader of the centrist Kadima party and Mr Netanyahu’s closest rival. While she served as an operative for Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, she lacks the military credentials that voters look for during periods of uncertainty.

Ms Livni remains a popular and respected leader, and she can also hope to capitalise on her image as the “Ms Clean” of Israeli politics. But comments like those heard from Likud supporters at Mr Netanyahu’s rally provide some indication of the struggle she will face: “She wants to please the Americans and she will make too many compromises,” said one.

One question facing Israel, and policymakers around the world, is how the country’s tilt to the right can be squared with developments elsewhere – particularly in Washington, where Barack Obama is pressing for a return to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Much will depend on the make-up of the coalition government that emerges after February 10.

Yet few would today bet against Mr Netanyahu playing a central role. And as the Likud leader made clear in his speech on Tuesday night, any talks with the Palestinians will be held with one issue in mind: “We are obligated to a process with the Palestinians which includes economic development, but let it be clear: with every negotiation, we will stand firm on security and the crucial interests of Israel.”

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