War on Gaza, fuel for the Israeli elections

There is a close relationship between the war in Gaza and the upcoming Israeli elections. Despite a self-imposed moratorium on campaigning during Operation Cast Lead, parties were covertly using the war as a battleground for winning votes – through calculated statements, decisions and media appearances.
The Gaza War over - Israel now rushes into a frenzied political campaign season ahead of February 10 elections.

NAZARETH, January 21, 2009 (MENASSAT) — Although the three-week war on Gaza was carried out during the heart of the Israeli election campaign, its purpose was not strictly about electoral gains.

Operation Cast Lead was as much about Israel's preoccupation with security as it was a means of providing this by debilitating the Hamas government and the Palestinian resistance. It was, in other words, an attempt at imposing a political vision on the ground.

But when the unilateral cease-fire that ended Operation Cast Lead went into effect at 2 a.m. on Sunday January 17, new life was breathed into the political campaign process.

The Labor Party was among the first to benefit from the war's 90 percent approval rating. Ehud Barak, Israeli Minister of Defense and head of the Labor Party, was largely seen as the mastermind of the war's success.

When comparing a cross-section of polls of Labor party support conducted before the war (December 23 and January 7) and after the war, public approval ratings rose by 46 percent, bringing the number of seats the party would gain in the Israeli Knesset (parliament) from 11 to 16 if elections were held tomorrow.

In the same polls, Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party would potentially lose two seats from 32 to 30 in the Knesset, and Tzipi Levni's Kadima party would win 27 seats, compared to 26.

On the 21st day of the war on Gaza, and with the end of hostilities in sight, a poll by Haaretz  showed that Barak's popularity escalated from 34 percent before the war to 70 percent. However, this approval did not translate into a rise in the seats in the Knesset where his party would still only get 16 seats.

Netanyahu blasts Livni
Despite Barak's gains and his attempt to play a bigger role in the elections, the competition remains between the right-wing Likud and the centrist Kadima.

An Israeli poll found that 36 percent of Israelis wanted Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu to become prime minister, while 21 percent preferred Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and 14 percent favored Labor chairman Ehud Barak.

Likud will focus on Livni, its main competitor. The party sees that it is in its best interest that the Labor party grows in importance in the Knesset and the electorate at the expense of Kadima.

So Likud has opened fire on Kadima and started its war against Livni.

Members of the Knesset and other party spokespersons were instructed to praise the Israeli army's military victory while accusing Livni of leading a diplomatic failure as foreign minister.

"The military delivered the goods, but it was a missed opportunity diplomatically," the Jerusalem Post quoted Likud Knesset candidate Moshe Ya'alon in an interview with Army Radio.

"We restored our deterrence in the first week, but since then, two weeks were wasted. We didn't need a war to reach a deal with the US against smuggling into Gaza."

Netanyahu also blasted Livni himself, saying that the war on Gaza did not do the job. 

"We have a strong people and a strong military that dealt a harsh blow to the Hamas, but unfortunately the work is still not done," Netanyahu said.

"The Hamas still controls Gaza and will still try to smuggle weapons into Gaza via the Philadelphi Corridor. We cannot show weakness against Hamas and its Iranian supporters. We need a strong, unwavering, persistent hand until the threat is eliminated."

In response, Kadima is planning to highlight Livni's diplomatic accomplishments, including the memorandum of understanding with the United States against weapons smuggling into Gaza, as well as her not caving in to international pressure during the three-week operation.

The expected battle between the main parties could be summarized with excerpts from an article by Israeli journalist Sima Kidmon in Yediyoth Ahronoth on January 9th.

Kidmon wrote, "When the ceasefire enters in effect in Gaza, another war will start, and who doesn't believe that the war occurs with one eye on the elections, can't disagree that its results and military accomplishments will be used to the benefit of the candidates."

He continued, "Barak will stress on the military accomplishments as opposed to the unacceptable political accomplishment (to get to Livni), while Livni would say that the political settlement could have been better if the army had better accomplishments (to diminish the achievements of Barack)."

As for Netanyahu,  Kidmon said he would most like adopt the "I told you so" speech, with his advisers using Netanyahu's previous statements as an illustration of his "honesty" in previous years.

Kidmon says that this situation is perfect for Netanyahu who can always claim that he can do better.


Current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was forced to resign after accusations of corruption, and because of the Israeli losses in the second Lebanese War, has been out of the electoral game ever since, and is now trying to purify himself from the failure of 2006.

Olmert would be satisfied if the elections were postponed and he was able to stay in his position for a few more months to repair his image. He doesn't hide his desire to return to the political scene after ending the issues he is dealing with.

The poll also found that 49 percent of Israelis said their opinion of Olmert had improved during the Gaza war.

The poll also showed that Olmert's popularity rose from 14 percent six months ago to 46 percent, in comparison with a raise from 34 percent to 51 percent for Livni, and 34 percent to 48 percent for Netanyahu.

Regarding Livni, 22 percent said their opinion of her improved, while 20 percent said it had gotten worse.

Arab parties banned from running

On January 12, the 19th day of the Gaza offensive, as public approval ratings soared over the Gaza war, the Israeli central elections committee moved to squash any political dissent in parliament by banning the only two Arabic parties represented in the Knesset from participating in the upcoming elections—the Democratic National Assembly established by Azmi Bishara, and the United Arab List.

The two parties described the elections committee session as chauvinist and racist against Arabs. Arab party representatives accused the elections committee of banning the Arab parties because of their outright opposition to Operation Cast Lead, and the direct participation of Knesset members in organizing Gaza-solidarity protests. The parties said they would present a petition to the Higher Court to reverse the ban.

As far as public opinion is concerned, few Israelis question the destruction and killing in Gaza. In fact, 82 percent of those questioned in a cross-section of polls think that Israel "didn't use extreme power" in the war on Gaza. 45 percent said Israel should have continued the war until a more suitable peace settlement was reached, while 33 percent of those polled called for an expansion of the ground offensive.