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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Three clocks in Tel Aviv

Domestic politics underlies Israel’s decisions in Gaza - or does it?

Written by Sudeep Paul |
January 7, 2009 10:32:34 pm

It is commonplace in analytical literature on Israeli military operations to say that Israel works by two clocks : one showing the time available for achieving the military objective; the other marking the time left before a ceasefire,brought about by international pressure and the humanitarian crisis,sets in.

But there has been a third clock ticking away. It was the first cause analysts cited while Israel’s traditional and automatic critics talk about nothing else: Israel goes to the polls to elect a new Knesset on February 10. And in Israel,while more than 80 per cent people support Operation Cast Lead,they disagree about the details. And everyone disagrees about the Kadima-led government’s motives.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vehemently denied,as did Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak,that politics had anything to do with the strikes. All they wanted was the diplomatic ground cleared and Hamas caught by surprise. Government spokespersons say that all considerations factored in the Palestinian side of the equation — significant therein being the expiry of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s term on January 9,which would embolden Hamas. But the denial of the political motive doesn’t convince anybody. Why now is the echoing question.

A look at what Cast Lead is doing to the electoral prospects of the contenders may,or may not,make things clearer. Tzipi Livni had a narrow but significant victory in the Kadima primaries last year,but failed to stitch a government together within the stipulated time,allowing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to continue. October through December,it had seemed that the chance Livni had been given to keep out Binyamin Netanyahu and his centre-right Likud for a while longer had been thrown away. Once the election date had been declared,Kadima stood little chance against Likud. Labour,of course,would be nowhere close to leading a coalition. Before Cast Lead began,some opinion polls showed Kadima and Likud steady at 27 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Centre-left Labour was at 14. Israelis didn’t forget the Kadima-Labour coalition’s mismanagement of the Lebanon war and they had grown increasingly concerned about security vis-à-vis Hamas. It seemed in Kadima’s political interest to pre-empt Likud with another war,and a successful one this time round.

But,in defence of the government,Olmert is not seeking re-election,Barak is way down in the opinion polls,and only Livni and Netanyahu are direct adversaries; yet,apparently,the last two were only “consulted” before Cast Lead,and the decision came from Olmert and Barak,the PM and defence minister respectively. Further,a poll for the Jerusalem Post conducted after Cast Lead began,showed that Likud and Labour both gained,with Likud up from 27 to 29 and Labour from 14 to 15. Kadima,meanwhile,was down from 27 to 23. If this poll were definitive (it is only one of many,some of which even show Kadima climbing back to 27),it would mean Cast Lead was translating into popularity for Labour,since its chief,Barak,is the defence minister. But Labour would still not lead a government. So,cui bono,who benefits? Not necessarily those who declared “war”. But it would be ironic if Kadima must lose to prove its innocence. The next week should show if it has salvaged its chances.

In Israel’s overtly democratic,multi-party and chaotic set-up,governments are almost always coalitions — often led by more than one of the major parties. The proportional representation system ensures that no party is in a position to form a government on its own,and it also gives disproportionate power to fringe groups — such as the religious parties. The success of Cast Lead would not only determine public perceptions,but also influence decisions of the fringe parties on the right. Wars have interfered with Knesset elections earlier — most recently in 1996 when Hamas bombings between the

Intifadas saw Shimon Peres lose to Netanyahu,and most famously in 1973,when the Yom Kippur War delayed scheduled elections.

And it isn’t Kadima alone being accused of political motives. The Likud has traditionally benefited from a climate of insecurity; whether it’s the US or Israel or India,terror is believed to push voters towards the right. Kadima wants to keep the centrist votes and take away the rightist ones. Likud wants to keep the rightist votes and take away the centrist ones. Labour wants to take away leftist,centrist and some rightist votes. It is Labour that is in a bind — persisting and winning the war would get it votes of the last two denominations,but ending it immediately would win votes from its erstwhile ally Meretz and other parties on the left. Barak may be the defence minister,but Livni can tell Likud voters that,with the experience of two wars,she’s now fit enough for the prime minister’s job. The third clock,from all evidence,was crucial to Cast Lead and it isn’t likely to stop before election day this year. But who gets to lead a new coalition then will depend on the other two clocks,and whether Hamas rockets also stop with those two.

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