Operation was successful for Israel, Lapid; not an electoral game-changer - analysis

In less than two months as prime minister, Israel's Prime Minister Yair Lapid faced what is perhaps the greatest test a leader can face, and passed.

 Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi visit the IDF Southern Command during Operation Breaking Dawn, August 7, 2022 (photo credit: ELAD MALKA/DEFENSE MINISTRY)
Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi visit the IDF Southern Command during Operation Breaking Dawn, August 7, 2022
(photo credit: ELAD MALKA/DEFENSE MINISTRY)

Operation Breaking Dawn was an undeniable success as far as Israel – and Prime Minister Yair Lapid – are concerned.

Israel left Palestinian Islamic Jihad licking its wounds after three days, with top terrorists killed in pinpoint operations, relatively few civilian casualties in Gaza – in fact, Islamic Jihad killed more Palestinian civilians than Israel did – and no Israeli casualties.

There was no perceptible international pressure. The sharpest condemnation came from Turkey, which, let’s face it, is a bit like the boy who cried wolf in these scenarios, even if ties between Ankara and Jerusalem have been warmer of late.

Things went smoothly partly because it was a fight against Islamic Jihad instead of against Hamas; a fight between a heavyweight and a featherweight, as former IDF foreign media spokesman Peter Lerner tweeted on Monday.

There was also, of course, a negative impact on Israel. Residents living along the Gaza Strip were under lockdown for days while Israel tried to avoid launching the operation, and then they had to run for shelter under a constant barrage of rockets for 66 hours.

 Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Prime Minister Yair Lapid to receive a briefing on the ongoing Operation Breaking Dawn, August 7, 2022 (credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO) Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Prime Minister Yair Lapid to receive a briefing on the ongoing Operation Breaking Dawn, August 7, 2022 (credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)

Israel did not want Hamas to be drawn into the fighting; it needed the operation to be kept short and narrow. But the effect may be to give Hamas, a terrorist group, greater legitimacy and power, continuing a trend that began years ago when Israel allowed Qatar to send suitcases of cash to Gaza.

All that, however, is not enough to override just how well the operation overall went for Israel.

Lapid passes the Gaza test

And it went even better for Lapid.

In less than two months as prime minister, he will have faced what is perhaps the greatest test a leader can face – and he passed with high marks.

Just as US President Joe Biden’s visit dented opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s image as the only one capable of managing Israel’s international relations, so too can Lapid now stand up and deny Netanyahu the title as Israel’s only “Mr. Security.”

Operation Breaking Dawn went well for Lapid in two areas that have been his strong points.

As foreign minister for the past year and still now, Lapid emphasized the need for constant communication with relevant parties abroad.

One of the messages Israel sent during this mini-war was that it was seeking to keep the operation short and focused. The result was no pressure from anyone Israel really cared about; statements issued from many Western countries about Israel’s right to defend itself from terrorism; and very little from diplomats of the “both sides” moral equivalency one often sees in these situations.

A savvy, fast-moving media strategy shot down false reports that Israel had killed a group of children in Jabalya, when in fact they were killed by an errant Islamic Jihad rocket. Even the pro-Israel media critics seemed to have less to complain about this time.

Lapid was directly involved in some of that, but he also made a good appointment when he first entered office: Lior Haiat as head of the Public Diplomacy Directorate in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Will Operation Breaking Dawn help Lapid in the election?

Despite all of the above, it is unclear whether this will help Lapid electorally, though it certainly won’t hurt him.

Operation Breaking Dawn may move some votes within the anti-Bibi bloc, if there were some Blue and White or other voters who had doubts on whether Lapid could handle a major security scenario as well as, say, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff.

It seems less likely, however, that a critical mass of the pro-Bibi bloc will change his or her vote over this operation.

The Israeli version of a “swing voter” is the Center-Right. In the last election, those voters chose Yamina or New Hope. If recent political experience and polling shows anything, it is that those voters did not actually want a coalition with the Center-Left.

After being part of the “change coalition” with Meretz and Ra’am (United Arab List), New Hope saw in many polls that it was not able to pass the electoral threshold on its own, forcing its leader, Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, to seek a merger with Blue and White. Yamina, now without Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett but with Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel, has a new name, “Zionist Spirit,” and a campaign emphasizing unity, but it is still hovering at the 3.25% threshold in polls.

It is clear from the polling that the former Center-Right voters moved to a more solid right-wing footing in Likud or other pro-Netanyahu parties. Those voters would have had to be disappointed by security policy, and to be so bowled over by Lapid’s performance over the past few days that they would be converted to switch sides.

That seems unlikely, though the weekend polls will give a better answer on whether the operation moved anyone from one side to another, or at least to the remaining swing party, Zionist Spirit.

At this point, Operation Breaking Dawn was a success for Israel and for Lapid, but probably not an election game-changer.