David Weinberg, Director, CIC Israel Office, looks at how the three-week offensive in Gaza was spurred by the upcoming vote, and how the result is playing out on the campaign trail.
Conflict Impact: The impending Israeli elections were a contributing factor in the recent conflict with Hamas, according to an analysis published this week by Prof. Shmuel Sandler of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
The imminent vote played a role in the decision to go on the offensive; and it partially explains why the Israeli media was so supportive of the war.
Minister of Defense Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzippy Livni undoubtedly feared electoral punishment if the IDF had continued to abstain from retaliating to the daily shelling of Israeli towns in the south. Israeli public opinion demanded that the leadership take action to stop Hamas terror, especially after Hamas unilaterally broke the six-month-long ceasefire. Both leaders feared that Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu would take advantage of the government’s failing to react.
For Ehud Olmert, having withdrawn from the contest, the incentive was reverse; he did not aspire to leave the scene as a failing Prime Minister who abandoned southern Israel to the terror of Hamas rockets.
Sandler also says that the mostly-left-of-centre Israeli media feared the ascendance of Netanyahu in light of this paralysis; which partially explains their support for the war against Hamas. Once action was taken, they mobilized behind the two candidates whom they preferred over the contender from the right.
Post-Conflict Campaign Messaging: The three-week offensive against Hamas shut down all public campaigning, effectively shortening the campaign to a tight, 20-day, post ceasefire affair that focuses almost exclusively on national security. The earlier focus on the economy (and who is best placed to lead Israel in these difficult economic times) has all but vanished as a focus of the campaign.
More saliently, the war result has greatly restricted opposition messaging. Likud would prefer to openly argue that the government squandered the military’s fine performance in the war: ending the war too soon with Hamas still in power, not decimating enough of Hamas’ fighting force, and putting in place no effective arrangements to stop the rearmament of Hamas through the tunnels in Sinai.
However, Likud’s Netanyahu is limited in making these arguments out of the strategic necessity â€“ for Israel’s long-term deterrence ability â€“ to maintain a narrative of Israeli victory over Hamas. As a result, Netanyahu’s criticism of the war’s endgame has been muted. Instead, he is reminding the public that the government’s mistakes (especially the 2005 disengagement from Gaza) led to the Hamas takeover of Gaza; a decision which he (eventually) opposed and warned against. He is also reminding the public that the two Kadima-Labor governments did nothing to stop the Hamas missiles from disrupting life in southern Israel for many, long years.