Hamas rockets reached Jerusalem today as the terrorist barrage on Israel continued. Rather than being silenced by Israeli counter-attacks, the Islamists have apparently been emboldened by the ardent support they have received from both Egypt and Turkey and have raised the ante in the conflict. That leaves Israel’s government having to choose between a cease-fire that will give Hamas a victory or to launch a costly ground invasion of Gaza that might inflict serious damage on the terrorists and perhaps restore some measure of deterrence. But looming over all of the discussions about the country’s options is the accusation that the fighting this week has been motivated more by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s re-election campaign than Israel’s security.
That’s the theme being sounded by a chorus of leftist critics of the PM on the Haaretz op-ed page and is even being echoed by President Obama’s good friend and Hamas ally Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan today according to Ynet. Leaving aside Erdoğan’s fantastic claim that the several hundred rockets that have been fired at Israel are a “fabrication,” the notion that the decision to try and stop the rocket attacks is connected to Israel’s parliamentary election scheduled for January.
Considering how unpopular Netanyahu is outside of his own country as well as with Israel’s media, it’s hardly surprising that this sort of thing would be said. But it should also be understood that it is complete nonsense. The timing of the conflict was determined by Hamas, not Israel, and far from boosting Netanyahu’s chances of winning re-election, the growing violence is much more of a liability than it is an opportunity to win votes.
First of all, the notion that Netanyahu needs a “wag the dog” style war to be assured of winning in January is absurd. The prime minister’s Likud has been a prohibitive favorite for months. While there has been virtual unanimity about the fact that Likud will form the next coalition, any doubts that his party would receive the most votes was erased by the merger with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitienu group. Though the expanded Likud may not dominate as much as Netanyahu hopes, it’s probably a lock to receive more Knesset seats than any party has won in 20 years.
A war may boost Netanyahu’s personal popularity while the fighting is going on, but that isn’t likely to translate into extra votes for his party in January. After all, centrist voters who are uncomfortable with Lieberman or even the prime minister are more likely than not to stick with Yair Lapid or any of the other alternatives that will probably wind up in Netanyahu’s coalition anyway.
Far more important to these calculations is that there may be more votes lost than won from a conflict.
It is true that had Netanyahu allowed Hamas to go on pounding the south as they did this past weekend, it would have undermined his credibility as a leader. Nor would the approximately one million Israelis who live in proximity to Gaza appreciate him leaving them unprotected. But the counter-attack exposes him to criticism on a number of key points.
Having set out this week to clip Hamas’s wings and restore Israel’s deterrence factor, how will it look if the fighting stops with the Islamist group’s power intact and in position to declare a victory? Indeed, with more than half of the hundreds of rockets launched by Hamas getting through Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome anti-missile system and with rockets landing in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem since the offensive started, it’s hard to argue that even the hard blows administered to the terrorists this week have made a dent in their ability to threaten the Jewish state.
If Netanyahu decides not to accept a cease fire under these conditions and launches a ground attack on Gaza of some sort, that will satisfy some Israelis. But the heavy casualties that will be suffered by both sides will also be held against him as well as heightening foreign pressure to stand down before Hamas’s infrastructure is significantly damaged. While a clear success would make him look good, does anyone really believe that under the circumstances and the advantages Hamas has in asymmetrical warfare it is likely that such an outcome is likely?
Most important, it should be remembered that Hamas launched this conflict for its own purposes. It was Hamas that dug the tunnel under the border with Israel to facilitate future terror attacks and whose discovery set the first attacks in motion. It was Hamas that chose to fire at an Israeli army vehicle across the border. And it was Hamas that decided that rather than instead of a limited exchange of fire after these incidents, it would launch a barrage of over 150 missiles into Israel on Sunday and Monday.
This decision was related to Hamas’s desire to upstage the Palestinian Authority and its bid for United Nations recognition. The flexing of their muscles was also about their desire to bolster the group’s popularity, something that required them to re-establish their reputation as the Palestinian group that was best at killing Israelis. None of that had much to do with Israel’s election, let alone Netanyahu’s political interests.
The long-term impact of the conflict that Hamas has fomented has yet to be determined. But whatever it turns out to be, ascribing it to a plot to re-elect Benjamin Netanyahu reflects the malice that many observers have for the prime minister, not a clear-headed analysis of the situation.