Ultra-Orthodox Jews make their way in the Ramat Shlomo development in Jerusalem,… (Jim Hollander / European…)
JERUSALEM — As Israel heads toward national elections next month, there's no shortage of hot-button issues that might dominate the campaign, including Iran's nuclear program, a call to draft religious students into the army and a growing budget deficit.
Instead, politicians are falling back into familiar debates about West Bank settlement construction and stalled peace talks with Palestinians.
The issue jumped to the forefront of the campaign this month when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu moved to approve or advance nearly 12,000 units of Jewish housing in the Jerusalem area and West Bank.
Among the projects were Givat Hamatos, the first entirely new Jewish development in the Jerusalem area since 1997, and the so-called E-1, which Palestinians say could kill their statehood bid by further isolating East Jerusalem from the West Bank.
The international community generally views as illegal Israel's settlement construction on land it has occupied since 1967. The United States and European Union led a chorus of criticism of the latest moves.
Netanyahu's political rivals quickly jumped into the fray. The left accused him of isolating Israel internationally, while the right dismissed the announcements as preelection pandering.
Political analysts say the debate only served to strengthen Netanyahu's hand in the Jan. 22 election.
"No doubt Netanyahu is trying to demonstrate determination in the face of world pressure," said Tamar Hermann, senior fellow at the Jerusalem-based think tank Israel Democracy Institute. "Since the perception is that the whole world is against us, this serves the right-wing. What the left perceives as diplomatically suicidal, the right interprets as holding ground."
Though most polls find Netanyahu is comfortably ahead, he has had to move aggressively to shore up his conservative credentials, joining forces with the nationalist party of former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to offer a combined candidate slate.
His biggest threat to date is the surprising rise in popularity of the far-right Jewish Home party under the leadership of his former chief of staff, Naftali Bennett.
Jewish Home, which opposes a Palestinian state and calls for the annexation of much of the West Bank, is now ranking third in some polls, after Netanyahu's Likud Party and the revitalized Labor Party.
Bennett helped keep the election campaign focused on settlements with a comment last week that he would, if he were a soldier, refuse to carry out orders to evacuate settlements. He backtracked after opponents accused him of calling for insubordination.
Settlers dismiss Netanyahu's moves as repackaging or advancement of projects already in the pipeline, not new construction.
"This is just campaigning at our expense," said Itzik Shadmi, a retired army colonel and chairman of the Binyamin Settlers' Committee in the West Bank. "He had four years to build, but didn't do it. Instead of coming to the public with promises, he could have come with actual deeds."
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert built more housing in the West Bank than Netanyahu has, Shadmi said.
Netanyahu denies using settlement construction as an election strategy. Some of the recent projects were part of Israel's retaliation against the Palestinian Authority's successful bid for a status upgrade to observer state in the United Nations.
In recent interviews and public statements, Netanyahu has portrayed himself as a defender of Israel.
"We will build in Jerusalem because this is our right," he told Israel's Channel 2. "What the U.N. says doesn't interest me."
At the same time, however, his aides privately tried to downplay the settlement announcements, noting that most of the construction is still working through the approval process and building is not expected to take place for years.
Palestinian leaders also have expressed skepticism about the seriousness of Netanyahu's settlement announcements. But Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said he is worried that Netanyahu is using Israeli elections as a "pretext" to expand Jewish housing in the West Bank.
"If he chooses to go down the path of E-1, Givat Hamatos and Ramat Shlomo … he's taking us to the end of the road," said Erekat, adding that Palestinians are considering filing a complaint in the International Criminal Court.
So far, Netanyahu's rivals have had little success in using the settlement issues to hurt the prime minister politically, or in changing the topic.
Labor Party chief Shelly Yachimovich has been trying to focus on economic and social reform issues, but a chorus of complaints within her party forced her last weekend to unveil a plan for restarting peace talks with the Palestinians and dealing with settlements.
Former television broadcaster Yair Lapid is making military service for all Israelis the centerpiece of his new party's campaign. The draft issue nearly brought down Netanyahu's government last spring when the Supreme Court overturned a law that in effect exempted ultra-Orthodox students from mandatory military service.
None of the parties seem to want to talk about Israel's budget deficit. One of the next government's first tasks will be passing a new budget that probably will include major spending cuts and tax increases.
"The big issues are being left aside," and Netanyahu probably wants to keep it that way, said political science professor Yehudit Auerbach of Bar-Ilan University.
"For Netanyahu, it's better to discuss an old issue that isn't really a problem than to bring up new issues or address real problems," Auerbach said. "That might demand new policies or answers."
Sobelman is a news assistant in The Times' Jerusalem bureau.