Analysis: Dealing with rockets during election time

Escalation could give Hamas oversized influence on Election Day.

Netanyahu and Barak at Iron Dome site 390 (photo credit: GPO / Amos Ben-Gershom)
Netanyahu and Barak at Iron Dome site 390
(photo credit: GPO / Amos Ben-Gershom)
Israel is still 89 days from elections, but the exchange of blows taking place in Gaza is the type of event that can play a key role in campaigns, knocking way off to the side the socioeconomic issues that parties such as Labor and Yesh Atid want to put at the center of the agenda.
True, three months is still a long way away. But there is no guarantee that the escalation we are witnessing now, even if calm is restored, will not return closer to Election Day.
This, of course, could give Hamas oversized influence on the vote.
If the border stays quiet, socioeconomic issues will get greater play in the campaign.
If Hamas continues to rain down rockets and missiles on the South as it did on Wednesday, these issues will figure less prominently.
We have been here before.
President Shimon Peres, who lost the 1996 election to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, blames his defeat to this day on a spate of suicide bombings in the weeks and months prior to that vote.
Whether we like it or not, the security situation that reigns in the country near the election will affect the outcome.
Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, who will run a campaign centered on socioeconomic issues, obviously realizes this. Still, on Tuesday she rallied around the troops and the home front, saying – in contrast to the heads of Kadima and Meretz – that she was giving her backing to Netanyahu and “understands the complexity of the situation whereby the IDF needs to act alongside showing restraint.”
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“It is important for me to show my support for the citizens of the South in their difficult hour,” she said. “The IDF is doing excellent work and we count on it with a full heart.”
The importance of the security situation for the nation’s psyche is obviously not lost on Netanyahu, who has already made enhanced security in the country over the past few years a centerpiece of his campaign.
“Four years ago, thousands of missiles and rockets fell on Israeli citizens in the South of Israel,” Netanyahu said in the Knesset last week when he announced early elections.
“We restored security to the citizens of Israel,” he said. “We enacted an aggressive policy, we improved deterrence. We did it with discretion and responsibility, but first we canceled the policy of restraint.
That is a policy that always, always leads to escalation and ultimately to war. Instead we introduced a policy of aggressively responding to all firing, and also preemptively responding to prevent firing.”
That was last week, before the current escalation.
The upcoming election puts Netanyahu in a predicament.
He said he brought security, but the events of the past few days seem to belie that. He needs quiet to run on a campaign ticket of having brought quiet.
But how can he get that quiet? If he takes more assertive action than he has over the past four years, he will open himself up to accusations he is doing so because of the election.
Indeed, Meretz head Zehava Gal-On already gave voice to that sentiment on Wednesday, saying that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were escalating the situation because of the election, and to ensure that Barak’s Independence faction makes it into the next Knesset.
“It appears that the election campaign of Barak and Netanyahu will not stop at election propaganda and billboards, but also with igniting Gaza,” she said.
Gal-On’s assertion is based on the assumption that Netanyahu would only gain from an incursion into Gaza, an Operation Cast Lead 2. But that assumes everything goes well. And if it doesn’t, wouldn’t he pay the price at the polls? Yet if Netanyahu does not take forceful action, he opens himself up to criticism from his political rivals similar to what Kadima head Shaul Mofaz said on Wednesday.
The situation in the South, Mofaz opined, was a result of the Netanyahu government’s inconsistent and “stuttering” policy toward Gaza.
“The deterrence that was achieved in the past has been eroded,” he said. “The stuttering of the Netanyahu government on security issues and its surplus of intimidation on Iran has a price.”
Mofaz’s argument is interesting in light of some statistics.
From 2009, when Netanyahu took over, until the end of September 2012, 1,508 rockets and 820 mortar shells fell on the South from Gaza, according to Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) figures. In the four years prior, from 2005 through the end of 2008, some 5,447 rockets and 4,108 mortar shells fell on Gaza.
In other words, 72 percent fewer rockets and 80% fewer mortar shells fell on the South during the past four years than during the previous four. For those in the South confined with their children to their safe rooms – if they have safe rooms – those statistics mean little and give no solace. But in an election campaign, they may loom large.
As the past decade has shown, implementing an effective Gaza policy is difficult if not impossible in the best of circumstances. In an election season, when all kinds of other considerations come into play, it promises to be even more knotty and complex.