The offensive has just begun, but it’s already changing the face of the election campaign

The offensive has just begun, but it’s already changing the face of the election campaign

Less than 70 days before Israel goes to the polls, Operation Pillar of Defense diverts public discourse from social justice to security issues and silences the government's critics -- at least for now

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on November 14, 2012. (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Defense Minister Ehud Barak at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on November 14, 2012. (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense/Flash90)

Operation Pillar of Defense began Wednesday afternoon exactly 68 days before Israel is due to head to the polls, and some are wondering whether the timing may not have been planned to help the current leadership stay in power.

This is not the first time Israel has embarked on an open-ended military adventure a short time before national elections. Operation Cast Lead, which similarly started as a response to continuous rocket fire from Gaza, began 45 days before the 2009 elections, which ended the reign of the centrist Kadima party and propelled a right-wing bloc of the Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and Shas parties into power. It’s perhaps a crass oversimplification, but in times of war Israelis tend to vote for parties that promise to be tough on terrorists. Advancing the peace process or fixing the country’s socioeconomic problems can be attractive campaign topics in quieter times, but not so when rockets are flying and citizens are spending their days and nights cowering in bunkers.

No one knows what precisely Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had in mind when they okayed the assassination of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari. It would be unfair and outright silly to accuse them of launching Operation Pillar of Defense merely to divert public attention away from calls for social justice and lower costs of living. Too many rockets have rained down on Israel’s south, with life becoming untenable for the residents of the communities surrounding the Gaza Strip.

Israel had to act. But whether Netanyahu and Barak thought about the elections when they took their fateful decision, the fact is that Jabari’s bloody end at the hands of the IDF — and the Israelis killed in the aftermath by Hamas’s rockets — will undoubtedly influence Israel’s election campaign.

In their initial reactions, most mainstream parties, including many in the opposition, voiced clear support for the operation; only left-wing and Arab parties questioned its wisdom. That is unlikely to change, at least for now. The right-wing parties will continue to portray themselves as resolute and unwavering fighters for Israel’s security who will not shy away from a military confrontation to protect the country’s citizens. And the center-left bloc will be hard-pressed to argue against Israel’s need to act decisively to end the rocket attacks from Gaza. Who wants to speak out against an Israeli government finally taking steps to defend the innocent citizens in the south, who have been suffering for so long?

In wartime there is no opposition, and for the center-left parties Operation Pillar of Defense comes at a most unfavorable time, politically speaking. There are still more than two months to go before the elections, but those who reject military interventions such as these will have a hard time driving home their points once the operation is over.

“We are still at the beginning of the event, not at the end, and we expect some complicated tests ahead,” Barak said Wednesday night. One of the stated goals of the operation is to “deliver a painful blow for Hamas and the other terrorist organizations.” To achieve that, the security cabinet unanimously decided to allow the IDF to mobilize reserve units. It won’t be a “one shot, that’s it” kind of operation, Barak explained. It doesn’t sound like it’s going to be over soon and if so, there will be little time for the opposition to regroup and feel comfortable attacking the government again.

What else is in it for Netanyahu and Barak, besides effectively muffling dissent and shifting the focus of the elections from a discussion of social justice issues to security concerns?

For one, taking out a senior Hamas official — and not just any; Jabari was responsible for countless terror attacks against Israel and the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit — is an accomplishment that will come in handy for the prime minister and his defense minister. As Election Day draws closer, these two former fighters in the army’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit will reiterate over and over that they had the capacity and the guts to kill Jabari. “Only I can keep the nation safe,” bot  will argue. What do former journalists Yair Lapid and Shelly Yachimovich have to offer in terms of security credentials? Very little, and Barak and Netanyahu know that.

Especially Barak can only benefit from the limelight this military operation grants him. His Independence party was widely expected not to clear the necessary 2% threshold to enter the Knesset. Now he can remind the Israeli public that he’s indispensable as defense minister. More than one pundit has remarked wryly that Operation Pillar of Defense should be called the War of Independence, as the cynical view is that it was ostensibly initiated to save his party.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert and ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni still haven’t announced whether they’re going to run in the elections, and it is unlikely they will do so as long as the Operation Pillar of Defense continues. They have exactly three weeks remaining in which they can submit their candidacy. They’ve both quickly expressed support for the resort to force.

So far, Israel’s operation look like a rather successful endeavor. “We have significantly debilitated [Hamas’s] ability to launch rockets from Gaza to the center of Israel, and we are now working to disable their ability to launch rockets towards the south,” Netanyahu said Wednesday evening.

But if allowing the conflict with Hamas to escalate really was a strategic move by Netanyahu and Barak ahead of the elections, as some have indeed suggested, it could also badly miss its intended goal.

Military campaigns can easily get out of hand, as Israel’s last two wars suggest. Barak formulated four goals for Operation Pillar of Defense: strengthening Israel’s deterrent capability, damaging the rocket launching network, hurting Gaza terror groups and minimizing damage to the home front. But all of these are rather vague, opening the door for a potentially protracted conflict with no way out.

Barak said the Israeli Air Force destroyed “most” of the long-range Fajr missiles stashed in Gaza on day one. What if Hamas, incensed by the Jabari’s death, decides to fire the remaining stock at Tel Aviv? Initially, the entire country would stand united behind the government and the IDF. But once the initial shock is over, the people of Israel people will hold their government accountable, whatever the outcome may be.

Operation Pillar of Defense is widely supported by the Israeli public right now. The question is how it will develop. As for the political fallout, the effect on January’s elections will depend far less on the early stages of this resort to conflict, and far more on the closing stages.

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