Gaza's Political Fallout: Israel's Right Strengthened

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Yossi Zeliger / Getty

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (L) shakes hands with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) and offers her hand to Defence Minister Ehud Barak during a business conference.

The dictum that "war is the continuation of politics by other means" may have been coined by Carl von Clausewitz in 19th century Prussia, but it was given new meaning during Israel's 22-day offensive in Gaza. The troika of Israeli decision-makers that ran the military campaign — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak (leader of the Labor Party) and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (who replaced Olmert as leader of the Kadima party because of his impending corruption case) — are fierce political rivals. "If they were together on an island in a Survivor episode," says Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University, "they would end up killing each other." And, needless to say with an election looming on February 10, that political rivalry appears to have had a major impact on Israel's conduct of the war.

Olmert wanted to prolong the Gaza war to do more damage to Hamas, in the hope of repairing his legacy that had been badly tarnished during Israel's botched 2006 war in Lebanon and by police allegations of corruption. Livni and Barak, both of whom are running for Olmert's job, wanted to end it earlier. But the two candidates differed on how to end it: Barak, a former general himself and ex-premier, argued that a cease-fire concluded with Hamas would be more durable. But Livni argued for a unilateral pullout from Gaza, having dealt the territory a heavy blow and reestablished Israel's "deterrent" power by its readiness to attack again. And the foreign minister got her way. (See images of heartbreak in the Middle East)

Still, Barak ended up ahead in this game of political Survivor. The latest polls show that most Israelis approved of the defense minister's cautious but methodical assault on Gaza, and his party's projected third-place share of the coming vote, according to polling by the Channel One news network, jumped from below 10 Knesset seats to around 15 seats. (In Israel, the party that wins the most seats in the 120-seat Knesset is tapped to form a government, and because the winner rarely attains a simple majority, it typically forms a coalition.) Livni's Kadima party, however, appears to have slipped back to just 21 seats, largely because the war shifted the goal posts of Israeli politics. Livni had been perceived as "Ms. Clean," the brusque woman who would sweep the sleaze out of Israeli politics. But after the Gaza invasion, that no longer mattered: Israelis reverted back to their primary obsession with national security, and Livni was found wanting. Says Ephraim Inbar, Director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Herzliya, "She was eclipsed by Barak. She wasn't associated with the success of the Gaza operation, but with the failure of the U.N. vote." The U.N. resolution called for a cease-fire, which Israel and Hamas both ignored, but Israel's refusal made it the target of international outrage. The resolution, on which the Bush Administration abstained but declined to use its veto as it so often has done on Israel's behalf, also demanded that Israel open the border crossings into Gaza, and called for reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, an option long opposed by Israel.

But regardless of the outcome of the Olmert-Livni-Barak tussle within the war cabinet, the biggest winner from the Gaza campaign was Benyamin Netanyahu, leader of the hawkish opposition Likud party and front-runner in the polls, who watched the Gaza war from the sidelines and saw his own lead over Livni wider to a margin of 33 seats to her party's 21.

Israel public opinion has shifted steadily to the right of center, and polls show that most Israelis are dissatisfied with the outcome of the Gaza war — they wanted to see Hamas crushed and the safe return of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas for two and a half years. Neither goal was achieved, allowing Netanyahu to smugly declare, in a recent visit to soldiers wounded in the Gaza fighting, "The IDF has dealt Hamas a severe blow, but unfortunately the job has not been complete." He added: "We cannot show any weakness in the face of the Iranian-backed Hamas terror and must act with an iron fist to defeat the enemy."

Many political analysts are predicting that a victorious Netanyahu could widen his base by forming a coalition with opponents closer to the center of the political spectrum, rather than aligning with parties even further to the right. That option could even see him offer Barak the job of defense minister again. The country's most decorated soldier, Barak allowed himself to be photographed often during the Gaza campaign in a black leather bomber jacket, poring over battle maps with his generals. This tough guy image sits well with Israelis, even if they were displeased that the Gaza war ended without Hamas' surrender. With Labor and Livni's Kadima on board, it may be possible for Netanyahu to be more successful in selling a peace accord to a wary Israeli public than a center-left government could be. But the main task facing the new Obama Administration may be to convince Netanyahu that there is more to be gained from pursuing politics with the Palestinians by means other than war.

With reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Tel Aviv

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