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Israeli Politics in War and Peace

I’m really not sure where Rosa Brooks of the Los Angeles Times gets her information, but her assertion that “the Israeli military offensive has more to do with politics than anything else” is not only wrong, but also probably an attempt to discredit the operation.

However, the politics of the day and the military aspects of war have gotten tangled up in an unhealthy way in the last 72 hours. Note the debate within the government concerning the proposal for a 48-hour cease-fire and the strange way in which Defense Minister Ehud Barak handled this matter. We’ve also seen the first signs of weakening public support for the war, and the first organized campaign against it.

Barak’s rivals, mainly Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and her Kadima buddies, are trying to use his sloppiness for political gains. As the operation in Gaza has helped to boost Barak’s (and Labor’s) fortunes in the polls, Livni and company need all the help they can get. The party that was recently considered a political corpse is now alive and starting to kick. Kadima can’t let this happen without kicking back.

In the 2006 Lebanon War, Livni called for diplomacy and an early cease-fire. Now, Livni is a hawks’ hawk. When Barak, in the weeks before the war, was trying to renew the Hudna (cease-fire agreement), Livni called for action. She also opposed the French cease-fire initiative, and keeps hinting that toppling Hamas is what’s really needed. Barak is careful not to aim for the sky. Suspecting that both of these leaders’ positions have something to do with politics is far from scandalous: Livni needs to be the hawk in order to convince voters that she’s no less tough than her male rivals, Barak needs to don the traditional tribal costume of the Labor leader and remind voters that he is from the peace camp.

But many Israelis are understandably upset about the mere mention of political considerations in a time of war. Unity and resolve can give way to shock and dismay, and the punditry is always there to fan the flames by redefining the word “politician” as one who sends our sons and daughters into the line of fire for the sake of election results.

The public outrage is both expected and overblown. In a democracy like Israel, politicians make war – and peace. And expecting politicians not to think about politics, a month or so before Election Day, is preposterous moralistic purism. Hopefully, Barak and Livni will make the most important decisions for the benefit of country — not party.
Barak and Livni are not uniquely opportunistic. Many of Israel’s past leaders fought wars on the eve of elections, and all have thought of political consequences as they went to war.

Think about Menachem Begin and his decision to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor on the eve of the very tight 1981 election. Did he do it just to win the election? No, he didn’t. Did he use it smartly for political benefit? Indeed he did.

Or take Shimon Peres’s decision to launch the Grapes of Wrath operation in Lebanon on the eve of the 1996 election. Was this a justified military operation? Probably. Was Peres thinking about Election Day and the need to boost his image as a capable military leader? Probably. (The operation eventually backfired: many Arab Israelis, angry at Peres, refrained from voting and thus helped Binyamin Netanyahu win.)

Such opportunism has also been employed in matters of peace. When Ehud Barak went to negotiate with Yassir Arafat in Camp David, he was already planning ahead, asking some political advisors to prepare for election “in case the summit is successful.” He was not necessarily going to Camp David in order to win elections, but he was definitely hoping to use success politically. When you ask a politician not to behave like a politician, be prepared for disappointed.



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