Political perils, profits of a military response to terror

Analysis: If PM doesn’t act tough, Lieberman could outflank him – just as Netanyahu outflanked Peres in 1996.

IDF Soldiers 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF Soldiers 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If Kadima had a patent on the name “Operation Cast Lead,” it could have made good money in the past 24 hours from the number of times that Likud security hard-liners, including MKs Miri Regev and Danny Danon, invoked as a threat the name of the 2008 operation carried out in the last weeks of the Olmert administration.
Rockets are falling in the south, inching toward the Tel Aviv suburbs and Jerusalem, a bellwether for internal security, experienced Thursday its first major bombing in years. At the highest levels of the government, an air of wait-and-see prevails.
But the political climate is anything but quiet regarding calls for tough action against terror, particularly in the Gaza Strip.
The coalition – and the opposition – are rattling their sabers.
Although security and diplomatic considerations certainly should trump political ones in deciding to call out the troops, political concerns frequently follow close behind. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is no stranger to security as a political asset, but could it play against him this time? In 1996, Binyamin Netanyahu bet an election on the slogan promising peace with security. In a story that would become one of the apocryphal tales of modern-day Israeli politics, Netanyahu initially suffered from a 20-point deficit in the polls behind his only opponent, then-prime minister Shimon Peres. But as spring 1996 drew Israel closer and closer to the polls, a series of suicide attacks – including the back-to-back bombings of Jerusalem’s Number 18 bus – killed 59 Israelis. Peres’s support plummeted – by two days before the election, the incumbent’s lead had decreased to 2%. The free-fall continued, and Netanyahu emerged victorious by a historically miniscule margin of 29,457 votes.
Netanyahu’s American campaign style combined well with his simple message that he could bring Israelis the security that they craved in the shadow of shattered post-Oslo optimism.
Now, ironically, a decade and a half later, Netanyahu has to ask again: will security sell? Elections are still far away, but the prime minister, who has a reputation as an ardent poll-watcher, knows what every Israeli political hack has noted in recent months: Kadima is ahead. Furthermore, on Netanyahu’s right, Israel Beiteinu threatens to grab votes away from the Likud among those who could be disappointed should the government fail to act aggressively against terror.
Lieberman could play Netanyahu, in other words, to Netanyahu’s Peres.
A strong operation against terror – if it was successful – could help Netanyahu regain support on the right, support lost over everything from his Bar-Ilan University two-state speech to the 10-month settlement freeze, and that continues to slip as Likud hard-liners repeat calls for action against Hamas in Gaza without receiving an answer.
Netanyahu, however, also has points to lose in such an operation. He cannot ignore the possibility of a second Goldstone Report, of providing more meat for Kadima’s constant chorus that the prime minister is isolating Israel on the international scene.
Sitting proverbially next to Netanyahu is a man who has nothing to lose.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak has nowhere to go but up in the polls, as the leader of a faction that currently seems unlikely to surpass the minimum number of votes to make it into the Knesset.
The latest scenario bandied about in Jerusalem is that Barak will try and find himself a place in the Likud Knesset list.
Likud insiders do not believe that Netanyahu will be able to offer Barak a guaranteed slot, meaning that the former Labor leader would have to run in the party’s primaries. Barak would need to enlist support among people in the party who were his rivals for almost two decades.
What better way to generate support on the right than pushing for – and then standing at the head of – a successful operation in Gaza? Barak may have been accused of reluctance in Operation Cast Lead, but he has much less to lose in Spring 2011 than in Winter 2008 – at least politically.
Ultimately, as in 2008, or before that in 2004, the decision to launch a major operation in Gaza is likely to have more to do with Kassams and Grads than with polls.
But if – or when – the tanks and APCs roll into Khan Yunis or Gaza City, the opinion poll considerations won’t be far behind.