The former Mossad agent who leads Israel’s ruling party, Kadima, failed in her effort to put together a government, but there’s a chance that Tzipi Livni will never become prime minister. That’s because Israel’s leading uber-hawk, Bibi Netanyahu, is making strong showings in the polls in the run up to what seems likely to be an election early in 2009. A Netanyahu victory would make neoconservatives delirious with joy. For earth’s human population, however, the news isn’t so good.

Early polls show Livni with a small edge over Netanyahu in an Israeli election, in which voters choose parties, not personalities. One poll suggests Kadima would win 29 seats, Netanyahu’s Likud 26, and Labor (which used to dominate Israel overwhelmingly) just 11. That would be a big gain for Likud, which has only 12 seats today.

Other polls give Likud as many as 30 seats, and Haaretz, the Israeli daily, suggests that Netanyahu is starting to smell victory:

“After two and a half years of warming the opposition benches with a paltry 12 seats, after the party was nearly decimated in the 2006 elections following the Kadima split, the members of Likud are starting to smell the old, familiar scent of power.

“The energy is back, the polls are flattering, the alliance with Shas has been renewed and the future seems promising. Likud is the only party that genuinely sought general elections. Plus, ever since the Second Lebanon War ended, Likud had been consistently leading in the polls.”

Kadima, of course, is not really a political party with a following. It was a one-man show created by Ariel Sharon, the coma-stricken superhawk who helped found the Likud bloc way back in the days of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir of the old Herut party. When Sharon broke up Likud, he brought various right-wing and centrist politicians into Kadima. But when Sharon fell ill, his colorless successor Ehud Olmert plunged to support levels in the single digits, and Livni is not exactly charismatic. Netanyahu, a wild-eyed radical, is a charismatic former general who rocketed to fame when his brother was killed in an Israeli commando raid into Uganda in 1976. Netanyahu, who speaks flawless, elegant English and carries himself with a tough-guy swagger, finds his chief constituency among hard-right American Jews and neocons.

But violence could boost Netanyahu. Any extremist Palestinian faction with a few bombs — think Islamic Jihad or some radical wing of Hamas — could tilt the election in his favor by plotting a few attacks and scaring Israelis into voting for the tough guy. The AP reports that Livni’s “advantage [in the polls] was narrow and could easily evaporate — especially if new Israeli-Palestinian violence erupts.”

The Israeli far right is chomping at the bit for new elections. There are, in Israel, parties even more far right than Netanyahu’s already woo-woo views, such as the Yisrael Beiteinu bloc, which is pushing hard for new elections.

Needless to say, new elections in Israel would put the final nail in the coffin of the long-dead, Bush-sponsored “peace process” that has been sputtering along to nowhere. But it also will put a huge roadblock in the path of an incoming Obama administration, since Israeli politics will be chaotic for the foreseeable future:

“The peace process could be delayed up to a year,” Uzi Baram, a political strategist and former cabinet minister from the Labor Party, said in an interview [with Bloomberg]. “We have to have elections, then a government will have to be formed and then it will take time until that government begins functioning fully.”

Incidentally, Livni’s bid to create a governing coalition fell apart when she wouldn’t give in to the demands of a small, religious party that Jerusalem, Israel’s capital, not be divided in any deal with the Palestinians. That is an ominous portent. And settler violence is increasing, as the Israeli army takes steps here and there to reign in the most egregious illegal settlement activity in the West Bank. Many right-wing and religious parties support the settler movement.