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One of the most common questions the foreign press has asked Israeli interviewees since Operation Cast Lead began on Saturday was how much of an impact the fact that a general election is coming up on February 10 had on the decision to go to war.
The answer that Israel's spokesmen have consistently given is "zero."
They have said that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is not running for reelection, that Defense Minister Ehud Barak is too far back in the polls to be a factor and that the two main candidates in the race - Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu - were consulted on the decision, but it was ultimately made by the prime minister and the minister of defense.
They said the timing for the operation was based solely on the six-month cease-fire's ending on December 19, and on a week of unsuccessful efforts to restore it. They added that if any political considerations were involved, they were on the Palestinian side, where Hamas wanted to flex its muscles ahead of next Friday, when Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's term ends and, it believes, a power struggle will ensue.
The foreign press didn't seem to buy that explanation. Neither did residents of the South, who wanted such an operation to have been undertaken years ago, instead of waiting so long to exhaust every possible option other than war.
Even if Israel's spokesmen are given the benefit of the doubt that no political considerations were involved in the initial decision to go to war, it is harder to believe Olmert's statement to the cabinet Wednesday that every decision since then was also made for purely professional reasons.
And even if the decision to go to war was not influenced by the looming election, no one would disagree that the election will be majorly impacted by the war itself. And that makes it inevitable that the concurrent combat and campaigning will be intertwined.
SEVERAL ISRAELI elections were influenced by the outcome of wars, military operations and waves of terror, among them the Yom Kippur War in 1973, which caused them to be delayed, and in 1996, when a Hamas-led spree of suicide bombings snatched victory from Shimon Peres and helped hand it to Netanyahu.
Many die-hard doves still believe that the peace process with the Palestinians would have been completed successfully in the previous decade had Hamas not influenced that race. They are concerned that history will repeat itself, and that Hamas will return the Likud to power again.
The Likud, of course, rejects that version of history. "Next thing you know, they'll say we gave Hamas the Kassams to help us get elected," a Likud official said mockingly.
While historically, terrorism and security threats have shifted the public rightward, polls show that it hasn't happened this week. The Likud and Kadima have held steady, while Labor has gained a few mandates, thanks to the perceived success of Barak.
Likud officials expressed confidence that they will end up gaining from the war, win or lose. They say that if the IDF succeeds in stopping rocket fire, Barak will be credited and Labor will gain at Kadima's expense. And if the war is unsuccessful, Livni will be blamed for caving into international pressure to end it prematurely, and the first Kassam fired after a cease-fire would give the Likud five more mandates.
Labor also thinks it will be the victor of the war. Boosted by polls showing Barak's popularity rating tripling, the party's MKs started talking this week about passing Kadima and winning the second-most seats behind Likud. But they also haven't forgotten that Amir Peretz's popularity rating topped 70 percent when the Second Lebanon War was going well.
In Kadima, party officials spoke more modestly. They said the war gave Livni the opportunity to look "presidential," and that after serving in a position of power in two wars, the Likud would have a hard time claiming that the Prime Minister's Office was out of her league, as it did in a negative campaign that was shelved due to the war.
But privately, politicians in Kadima expressed concern that they stood to lose a great deal in the current war, as they did in the last one. Two MKs among the party's top 10 candidates even suggested in closed conversations that the election be delayed.
IT IS in this preelection spirit of tension and competition that Olmert, Barak and Livni are meeting almost nightly to decide how to proceed with the war. It is no wonder that leaks are emerging about infighting among the three.
There have been disputes over credit and blame. Kadima officials are concerned that Olmert will try to prevent Livni from receiving any credit for the war's successes, and will help make sure she becomes the fall guy for its failures.
Livni reportedly was steamed at Olmert for inviting Netanyahu to brief the foreign press. Olmert actually asked several politicians to aid the PR effort, but his office only put out a statement about Netanyahu, and not about his also turning to ministers Isaac Herzog and Meir Sheetrit.
Barak and Livni have accused each other of leaking the timing of the IDF's first strike, and they fought over who should make the first statement informing the world about the maneuver.
Both Olmert and Livni told the press that they scolded Barak for telling the French foreign minister that Israel would consider a cease-fire. Livni said international diplomacy was her turf, and Olmert was quoted as saying that only he would handle the sensitive negotiations with foreign mediators about how to end the war.
Barak's associates said Livni was trying to look tough to try to win votes from Likud, while Kadima sources said Barak sought a cease-fire in an effort to win votes away from Meretz.
With all that infighting and mutual mistrust, it could be hard for the three leaders to unite to fight Hamas. But a source close to one of them said it would not be a problem, because Hamas was not their only common enemy - or challenge.
"They are fully aware," the source said, "that if there is a commission of inquiry after the war, all three of them will be in the same boat."
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