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JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel's election campaign entered its home stretch on Tuesday with the beginning of a quirky two-week period of televised political advertisements, giving candidates a final chance to attack front-running Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Derided by many as archaic and irrelevant, the state-subsidized blocs of ads are a legendary part of Israeli election campaigns, providing a rare platform for candidates from the more than 30 parties contesting the election to take their messages to the masses. With a firm lead in opinion polls, Netanyahu has rejected calls to debate his opponents.
Under Israeli election law, TV stations must set aside time each evening for two weeks to air the advertisements free of charge. The election is set for Jan. 22.
In the first ads broadcast Tuesday evening, Netanyahu portrayed himself as a strong leader who has protected Israel's security and represented his country proudly on the world stage. The ads show images of a stern-faced Netanyahu speaking to the U.S. Congress, meeting President Barack Obama and addressing the United Nations.
His main opponents from the center and left attacked him for failing to advance peace efforts with the Palestinians and for ignoring the plight of the middle class.
Yair Lapid, a telegenic former anchorman who leads the centrist Yesh Atid, or "there is a future," poked fun at Netanyahu's speech at the United Nations last fall in which the prime minister displayed a cartoon-like drawing of a bomb as he lectured the international community about Iran's suspect nuclear program.
In Tuesday's ad, Lapid held up a similar-looking diagram, warning that Israel's middle class was on the verge of exploding under the pressure of the high cost of living. "This is the bomb. This is the fuse," Lapid says in accented English.
Former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, whose "Movement" Party has made Mideast peace its top priority, aired a series of slick ads portraying her as the only candidate with the vision and international stature to take on Netanyahu.
While Netanyahu has claimed his tough positions toward the Palestinians have guaranteed Israel's security, Livni says he is putting the country's future in jeopardy.
Without creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, she says Arabs living under Israeli control will soon outnumber Jews. "To remain a Jewish and a democratic state, we need a political agreement" with the Palestinians, Livni says in her ad.
Netanyahu would appear to be vulnerable after four stormy years marked by deadlock in peace efforts with the Palestinians, clashes with the international community over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, growing gaps between the nation's rich and poor and a failure to end a much-criticized policy of exempting young ultra-Orthodox men from military service. Netanyahu's top priority, halting Iran's suspect nuclear program, also remains a question mark.
But these issues have been largely pushed aside during the campaign, overshadowed by domestic issues and personalities leading the many parties. The centrist parties, including the Labor Party, which have been critical of his handling of peace and social issues, have been plagued by fighting among themselves and unable to put forward a coherent message.
Under Israel's proportional representation system, parties receive a number of parliamentary seats based on the percentage of votes they receive. The leader of the party with the best chance of forming a majority coalition in the 120-seat chamber serves as prime minister.
Opinion polls have repeatedly forecast that Netanyahu's Likud-Beitenu bloc will receive about 34 seats, making it the largest faction in parliament and positioned to form a majority coalition with hard-line and religious parties.
With the centrist parties all trailing far behind, Netanyahu's biggest challenge appears to be coming from the ultranationalist "Jewish Home" Party.
Led by a former aide to Netanyahu, Naftali Bennett, the party opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state and espouses annexation of occupied territory.
In its ads, "Jewish Home" shows a dove spreading its wings as a way to poke fun at other parties' promises of peace and touts the military backgrounds of its members, several of whom, like Bennett, served in elite commando units.
It remains questionable whether the ads will make any difference in the age of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
Baruch Leshem, a lecturer in media studies at Israel's Sapir College, said less than 5 percent of households are expected to tune in to the ads, compared with 39 percent in 1999.
Daniel Estrin contributed to this report.
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