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(photo credit: AP)
In the minds and mouths of the country's enemies, Operation Cast Lead is no more than a campaign gimmick - the manipulation, as a columnist on the Beirut-based Dar al-Hayat Web site wrote, of Palestinian blood for election purposes.
But why go so far afield? MK Muhammad Barakei (Hadash) accused Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of "using Palestinian blood for political aims."
And his words were tame compared to various Hamas and Hizbullah spokesman screaming that every Israeli election needs dead Palestinians as a campaign backdrop.
As if it wasn't Hamas that declared an end to the cease-fire on December 19 and rained rockets onto the western Negev. As if it wasn't Hamas that continued to fire rockets, despite being warned for months that at a certain point Israel's patience would actually run out, and it would take serious military action to protect its citizens.
No, Operation Cast Lead was launched now because Hamas terminated the cease-fire, and has made life in the South unbearable. Considering the situation in the South over the last few months, it's unfair to accuse the country's leaders of risking the lives of IDF soldiers, and unwittingly causing the death of civilian Palestinians being used by Hamas as human shields, for election purposes.
That being said, election considerations will inevitably seep into the decision-making process regarding the waging of the war. Life is not black or white. Decisions are not made entirely because of one reason or another. Decisions are complex and colored by numerous different considerations - some more prominent than others - one of which at this time is certainly the elections.
That the three major players in this drama, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Barak and Livni, all apparently have different takes on how to end the operation can to a certain extent be explained by different political interests. Again, not solely, but - perhaps - partly.
FIRST, LET'S look at Olmert. He himself is not involved in the elections, so he can't be accused of going to war because of the campaign. That being said, he is obviously interested in his historical legacy, how he will be remembered. If his dramatic left turn over the last few months - a left turn reflected in public comments expressing a willingness to cede the Golan Heights, half of Jerusalem and the vast majority of the West Bank - was seen by some as an attempt to carve out a legacy as a man of peace, the success of Operation Cast Lead will help balance the historical record when it comes to how he waged Israel's wars.
If the operation goes well, he will not only go down as the leader of the failed campaign in Lebanon, a campaign that caused chinks in our deterrent armor, but also the leader of the successful war in Gaza, which rebuilt that deterrence.
Historians will likely deal more gently with Olmert's security legacy if Operation Cast Lead is a resounding success, rather than if it were stopped in the middle. This may be among the reasons why Olmert - more so than either his defense or foreign minister - is interested in the military operation continuing, even as negotiations are under way for a cease-fire. His legacy did not propel Olmert to go to war in Gaza, but it could obviously benefit as a result.
THE SECOND main player is Barak. Of the triumvirate leading the war, he is in the most difficult position. On the one hand, he is the defense minister, mandated with protecting and defending the people. On the other hand, as Labor Party leader, he is also the head of the "peace camp."
That is not an easy tightrope to walk.
Livni, his chief political rival right now, seemed to dare him in early December to "act like a defense minister," chiding him for not responding to repeated Hamas infractions of the cease-fire. "Whoever's responsible for defense needs to act," she said. "I will act in the political arena."
Well he is acting, and - according to soaring approval ratings and the way the war is going so far - not dong a bad job of it.
But, politically, he has to be careful. Barak knows that his main rivals are Livni to his right and Meretz to his left. His actions in Gaza have shown the old Labor security-minded constituency, who may have defected to Kadima, that he is a man of action, not words. And his signals now that he wants a cease-fire indicate to those in Meretz, or those in Labor thinking of defecting to Meretz, that though Barak is willing to wage war, he also knows when to stop.
Barak knows full well that Binyamin Netanyahu is not his chief rival - that he will not pull votes from the right. Rather, he could pull votes from Kadima's left flank, as well as keep a hemorrhaging of left-wing Laborites to Meretz. And his position on the endgame - that Hamas has been dealt a major blow, that the goals of the operation have been realized and that it is time to pack it up - plays well among that constituency.
If the IDF stops now, Barak could claim victory. Pushing further, however, runs the risks of more casualties and entering into another morass that would be dumped at his doorstep. Again, he is not vying for right-wing voters; he doesn't have to talk about toppling Hamas.
LIVNI, HOWEVER, has to think about the right-wing camp. To win the elections, she is going to have win over a few mandates from the right, either by nibbling into some Likud support, or capturing more of the Russian-immigrant vote. And this seems to explain her rhetoric.
At a press conference Monday in Jerusalem with a visiting EU delegation, a different Livni showed up than in months past. This was a Livni aggressive in her words, tone and body language. This was a Livni who said Israel would not again tolerate a situation where it is hit but will not hit back. Period. A Livni who skirted the diplomatic niceties of the past.
Livni's main problem right now is maintaining relevance. As prime minister, Olmert is leading the war. As defense minister, Barak is directing. So, some could ask, what exactly is she doing?
Granted, she is talking to world leaders, and explaining Israel's position abroad, and trying to bloc UN Security Council resolutions. She is, after all, the country's top diplomat.
But even in this sphere, both Olmert and Barak are taking bites out of her turf. Big bites; huge bites. Olmert, through frequent phone calls to Washington, and constant contact between his office and the White House, is in control of the diplomatic front with the US. And Barak is leading the charge with the Egyptians.
So Livni is left talking to the Europeans. But even there she has been overshadowed by Olmert, who dealt directly with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Barak, who talked directly to French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. This also explains, to a certain degree, her position on the end game.
She reportedly wants Israel to declare a unilateral cease-fire, without any agreement with the Egyptians (an agreement Barak would likely be credited with), and make clear that if Hamas fires again, it would take further action.
This position is consistent with the line Livni has taken since the beginning of the operation - that this is just one battle in a long war against terrorism. Lurking beyond this statement might be a rationale for stopping the operation now, perhaps colored by a fear that if it continues, and bogs down, responsibility will be placed at her doorstep as well as at Barak's, and the electorate could turn to Netanyahu, saying, "There is a man who could finish the job."
WHICH BRINGS us to Netanyahu, who, among the major actors in the election drama, has to be the most frustrated, because there is not much he can do, other than watch from the sidelines.
Granted, Netanyahu is explaining the country's position on the airwaves, but that - too - must be testing: explaining the positions of a government he wants to replace. Yet it is war, and Netanyahu must appear above the fray, statesmanlike, holding his criticism, his fire, until the fighting is over, when he can them tell all what he really thinks.
And while Netanyahu holds his tongue, those on his right can call for the smashing and toppling of Hamas. Netanyahu must be more reticent. Not only because he doesn't want to criticize during the fighting, but because the rest of the world is already listening carefully to his words. From Netanyahu's political point of view, all of the above is the bad news.
Netanyahu's good news, however, is that his polling numbers are staying pretty stable, at about 30-31 mandates, and most of the number changes in the polls are happening in the other parties. Netanyahu can sit content, knowing he has a quarter of the mandates in his bag - a quarter of the electorate which hasn't left him even during the drama of war, when the action is being directed and managed by others.