FIVE times in Israel since 1980, a right-wing government has called an election without launching a complementary military operation.
Comment by Gwynne Dyer
The right lost two of those elections (1992, 1999), tied two others (1984, 1988) and won only one of them decisively (2006).
On the other hand, critics of Israel point out, three times since 1980 right-wing Israeli governments have combined an election campaign with a major military operation against some Arab or Palestinian target. And this combination, it has been argued, yields decisive electoral success for the right.
Menachem Begin’s government won the 1981 election three weeks after carrying out a attack on the Osirak research nuclear reactor France had sold to Iraq. In the view of most outside observers, the reactor posed no threat to Israel, but the attack was popular in Israel.
Ehud Olmert’s coalition launched the “Cast Lead” onslaught against the Gaza Strip in December 2008 to January 2009.
The three-week campaign left 1 400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead. The election was held a month later, and Benjamin Netanyahu emerged as the leader of a new right-wing coalition.
So here we go again, perhaps? Netanyahu is still the prime minister, and the next elections are due in January. What better way to ensure success than to bash the Palestinians again?
Does the case hold water? Actually, no. Begin’s attack on the Osirak reactor may have been an electoral stunt, although he was clearly paranoid about the possibility of a nuclear weapon in Arab hands. But Olmert, though undoubtedly a man of the right, was the leader of a new centrist party, Kadima.
Moreover, Olmert had already resigned over a corruption scandal, and was merely acting as interim prime minister.
The right won the election in early 2009, and formed a government led by the Likud’s Netanyahu. It is equally hard to believe Netanyahu is seeking electoral gain by attacking Gaza this month.
Every opinion poll in Israel for months past has been saying he is going to win the January election. A major loss of Israeli lives in the battles, while unlikely, would only work against him.
So why is this happening? Historians traditionally split into two camps: Those who see purpose and planning and plots behind every event, and those who think most events are just the random interaction of conflicting strategies, imperfect information and human frailty –– known in the historical trade as the “cock-up theory of history” and it is very attractive as an explanation for the current situation.
Netanyahu had no need for a little war with the Palestinians. His strategy of shouting “wolf” about Iran and its alleged nuclear weapons programme has succeeded in distracting international attention from the Palestinians, leaving him free to expand Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
Hamas leaders had no interest in triggering a military conflict with Israel. They had reason to believe the political changes in the Arab world were strengthening their position.
So how did this happen? Another cock-up.
Hamas had been trying to maintain calm in Gaza, but it has little control over radical jihadi groups who build popular support with utterly futile rocket attacks on Israel.
Hamas faces the political danger of being outflanked by more extremist rivals, so it cannot crack down too hard. Israel, fed up with their pinprick attacks, was looking for somebody to punish, and since it couldn’t locate all the jihadi leaders, it decided to assassinate Ahmed al-Jabari, the head of the military wing of Hamas. So then Hamas fired a few of its own rockets into Israel, and Israel retaliated massively, and we were off to the races.
Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.