The ‘Wag the Dog’ conspiracy that never happened - analysis

When Palestinian terrorists shot rockets into central Israel and completely destroyed a house in Moshav Mishmeret, some thought Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the real problem here.

The Wolf family home in Moshav Mishmeret after it was hit by a Hamas rocket  (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
The Wolf family home in Moshav Mishmeret after it was hit by a Hamas rocket
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
The 1997 movie Wag the Dog stars Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman as a political strategist and a film director enlisted to do damage control in light of a sex scandal involving a president running for reelection. They concoct a fake war in Albania, releasing footage of fictional battles, destruction and a photogenic orphan.
When Palestinian terrorists shot rockets into central Israel and completely destroyed a house in Moshav Mishmeret, injuring all three generations of one family, some thought that instead of condemning Hamas for targeting infants, toddlers and their grandparents, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the real problem here.
A conspiracy theory in the style of Wag the Dog began to be floated in news outlets of varying levels of respectability – like the UK’s Independent – and on the social media accounts of anti-Israel organizations that Netanyahu wants a war, because it’ll somehow help him ahead of the April 9 election. They claimed that Netanyahu intentionally sparks wars right before elections to help him win.
“History shows a terrible pattern of Netanyahu heightening violence right before Israeli elections,” Jewish progressive group IfNotNow tweeted.
“We cannot give in to this pattern of fear – it keeps fascist leaders like Netanyahu in power.”
This claim is not only false, but is preposterous for many reasons.
First, the dry facts: the only wars – really operations – that have taken place while Netanyahu was in power were Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Protective Edge in 2014.
Protective Edge began eight months before the 2015 elections. It’s true that in Israel’s chaotic political system, an election could break out at any time, but July 2014 wasn’t a time when it seemed particularly likely. And the coalition was relatively united after the operation, reflecting a public rallying around the flag. It took a few more months for Netanyahu to summarily fire ministers in his coalition and trigger an election.
Only Pillar of Defense took place during an election campaign. Netanyahu kept it relatively short, without any troops on the ground, and the operation didn’t help him in the polls. In fact, the Likud-Yisrael Beytenu hybrid did significantly worse in the 2013 election than expected.
Bizarrely, a timeline shared by IfNotNow seemed to blame Netanyahu – who they refer to as a “fascist leader” – for Cast Lead in 2008, when he was opposition leader.
If anything, Cast Lead disproves their thesis, because taken together with Pillar of Defense, it shows that the leaders who go into wars during election time come out politically weakened.
Gaza is a quagmire that is not easy to get out of once Israel plunges in, as Protective Edge showed, and these operations tend not to change the situation very much. At most, Hamas then takes a year or a few to lick its wounds and build new rockets. Israel would have to take very extreme action to make a real change, and that is even less likely to happen two weeks before an election.
Why would Netanyahu intentionally hurt his electoral chances, let alone choose to do it repeatedly? Why would he jump into a military operation when he has so little control over how and when it’ll end?
Also, if Netanyahu is so trigger-happy, why didn’t he have the IDF do much of anything after Hamas shot 460 rockets into Israeli civilian areas in one day, just a few months ago?
The truth is an escalation in Gaza is a political lose-lose situation for Netanyahu. He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. And Netanyahu generally doesn’t.
One of Netanyahu’s greatest electoral assets is that the past decade has arguably been Israel’s quietest. The “Mr. Security” reputation that foreign journalists and NGO antagonists seem to think is all about warmongering is, in fact, about the exact opposite. At the same time, keeping the calm leaves Netanyahu open to criticism from both his left and right. In this election season, politicians ranging from New Right’s Naftali Bennett to Labor’s Avi Gabbay have criticized what they view as Netanyahu’s inaction, his preference to maintain the status quo.
There’s another reason that the claim of “Netanyahu heightening violence right before Israeli elections” is preposterous. It’s that Netanyahu is not the one who heightened the violence.
Gazans have been violently rioting at the border with Israel for a year now, with Hamas’s encouragement, and Israel has defended its border, but has not launched a major operation. In the past few weeks, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have had three “accidents,” shooting rockets into Beersheba, Holon and Mishmeret, each time saying it was a mistake, but all the while continuing to launch shorter-range projectiles into Israeli towns near the Gaza border.
Hamas is heightening the violence, not Israel or Netanyahu. One could ask them why they’re intervening in our election. But the reality is, they do this fairly often, regardless of when Israelis are going to the polls.