Analysis: Perfect time for Hamas to push the envelope

To say electioneering wasn't a factor in the positions being staked out by ministers on the Gaza issue would be to stretch credulity.

The upcoming elections sat almost like a physical presence in the cabinet room Sunday, when the government discussed the situation in the south. Both Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak alluded to the elections as the motivating factor behind those ministers making bellicose remarks and calling for fierce IDF action. Those ministers, foremost among them Vice Premier Haim Ramon and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, took umbrage, saying that their positions were formed months before the elections were called and had nothing to do with them. "My position is not connected to the elections," said Ramon. Livni added that she found it unacceptable that Barak would expect ministers not to talk about what needed to be done in Gaza during an election season. But to say that electioneering was not a factor in the positions being staked out by the various ministers on the Gaza issue - from Barak's restraint to Livni's militancy - would be to stretch credulity. Only Olmert, who is not running, can be considered free of election considerations - and indeed, he is backing the restraint of Barak and Labor, rather than the calling for a widespread action, as are Livni and most other ministers in his own Kadima Party. But even if one were to believe that the elections had nothing to do with Livni finding her inner bellicose voice, a voice that dovetails well with the mood of much of the country that feels impotent in the face of the Hamas provocations; and even if one were to believe that Barak's considerations were completely free of a concern that if he initiated action now, and it went poorly, it could cost him during the elections - one cannot discount the likelihood that Hamas's actions are motivated in part by the upcoming vote. Hamas is well aware that elections are on the horizon, and, according to one school of thought, is gambling that this is the perfect time to "push the envelope." Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) told the cabinet on Sunday that Hamas is interested in a return to the "calm," but wants to improve the conditions. If that is the case, then the period before the elections is a perfect time to up the stakes, knowing full well that Israel probably won't match the bet. Hamas, according to this thinking, knows Barak's hands are tied by the elections, because he would be hesitant to embark on a military action now which he would be held responsible for at the polls if it flopped, or even if it was not a resounding success. If this logic is correct, it means a massive Israeli operation against Gaza is unlikely until after election day on February 10, which gives Hamas a pretty free hand in the meantime to shoot at will, without "going overboard." Because if it "goes overboard," if it shoots too much, if it causes a number of casualties, Israel would have no choice but to retaliate, elections notwithstanding. Another school of thought posits that Hamas has to know its rocket attacks strengthen the Israeli Right and Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu. President Shimon Peres maintains to this day that he lost the elections to Netanyahu in 1996 because of the wave of suicide bombings that spring. Is that same dynamic at work? Does Hamas want the Likud to win the election? On the surface one would think not, since the conventional wisdom is that the Right would take more drastic measures against the Gaza Strip than is currently the case, and also take a tougher stance in negotiations with the Palestinians. But Hamas's motivations are never "on the surface." Indeed, Hamas's decisions to fire rockets at Israel are not only made in Gaza City, but also in Damascus, with input from Teheran. And neither Damascus nor Teheran want to see quiet right now in Israel's South, because for Syria and Iran, constant instability, constant friction and constant fighting, serve their purposes just fine.