By Barry Rubin
One of the many distortions written about Israel during this latest Israel-Hamas war is that the Israeli government was motivated to act by the fact that elections in Israel are being held on January 22. In other words, the motive is attributed to partisan rather than defensive motives. While this is only one of many inaccurate claims, it is a good illustrative example of how ignorance and malice combine in constructing an artificial picture of Israel.
First, by attributing the war to internal politics the actual motive is made to disappear. The most common distortion on Israel’s behavior in the Gaza Strip has been to ignore the main factor shaping it. If it were not for persistent cross-border attacks, Israel would never intervene militarily inside the Gaza Strip at all.
Even at the best of times, rockets and mortars are fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip and there are attempts at cross-border attacks, both against soldiers on the border and deep-penetration terrorist operations against civilians. These are often carried out by smaller groups like Islamic Jihad and a range of Salafist and al-Qaida affiliated organization.
Hamas likes to maintain the pretense, helped by some in the West, that the Hamas regime has no responsibility for these events. In fact, though, they act with its tacit permission and at times its active assistance. When such groups do anything directly against Hamas’s interests, they are quickly and ruthlessly repressed. When they attack Israel supposedly against the preference of Hamas, the regime does nothing.
If the Israeli military campaign was in response to events on the ground, events initiated by Hamas, it was not conditioned by forthcoming elections. But if elections are given as the cause, it can be claimed that Israel had no reasonable motive and no need to go to war.
In the current situation, as in late 2008 when the last war erupted, a simple statistical study shows two conditions existed. One was a steep increase in the different categories of attacks; the other was Hamas’s open participation in the operations. A turning point that brought about this war was the firing of far more rockets than “normal” and a series of cross-border attacks. The last one, in which an anti-tank rocket destroyed an army jeep and wounded the four soldiers on board, was the last straw for Israel.
Within Israel, it was widely noted in the media and elsewhere that the high level of aggression from the Gaza Strip had crossed the line. Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s many enemies in the media agreed with this assessment rather than seeing the problem being a generally peaceful situation being exploited for partisan reasons. Nor did the opposition parties take such a stance, though it might have benefited them to have complained in such a manner.
Another factor is historical precedent in Israel. Although many governments and some wars had been unpopular with elements of the public and the political parties, there had never been a serious charge of a decision to go to war as being made on electoral considerations. That’s because Israelis know the reality of the country’s strategic situation and the seriousness with which such choices are made. In a country where so many are serving in the army, the great majority have served, and so many have children being called up to duty, war has far more impact than for Western countries for whom conflict is far away and relatively few people are directly affected. If Israelis felt that their lives were being risked for someone’s selfish gain, they would not hesitate to protest loudly.
During the 1982 Lebanon war against the PLO, which many felt was avoidable, there were large-scale protests. During the 2006 Lebanon war against Hizballah there was vocal dissent about the decision to go to war. There has been no such reaction in this case.
There are also many interesting precedents that disprove the thesis that going to war helps a prime minister’s reelection bid.
- After the 1973 war, which Israel won, discontent with the Labor Party’s conduct of the campaign was a major factor leading to the end of that party’s almost three-decade-long rule of the country in 1977.
- In 1982, the decision to go to war in Lebanon and the resulting casualties ultimately contributed to the retirement of Prime Minister Menahem Begin and the poorer performance of the Likud Party in the subsequent elections.
- During the run-up to the 1996 balloting, Prime Minister Shimon Peres ordered a major offensive in southern Lebanon against Hizballah. No one in Israel charged that Peres was so acting in an effort to win the election. And in fact he lost it.
- In 2000, after Prime Minister Ehud Barak led the country in fighting the Palestinian intifada following the Palestinian Authority’s rejection of peacemaking, Barak was defeated.
- The 2006 Lebanon war, as noted above, damaged the discrediting of Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who led the Labor Party, coalition partner of the ruling Kadima party. It certainly did no good for Kadima either and the party lost the next election.
- Similarly, having conducted an offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009 that bears a close resemblance to the current one, the Kadima Party lost an election a few months after the war ended.
Thus, for Netanyahu to believe that going to war was the best way to assure his own reelection in 2012 runs totally against everything he knows and Israeli politics has experienced. Indeed, he had personally won two elections against prime ministers who had not long before that initiated wars that enjoyed large support from the Israeli public.
There is also, however, an additional factor. Everyone knows that Netanyahu is going to win. There is no other serious candidate to lead the country and every poll has shown his party to be in the lead. While the country is certainly experiencing a variety of problems, the economy is doing relatively well and nobody has a realistic alternative to Netanyahu’s conduct of foreign and security policies. At a time when the regional environment is becoming worse due to the rising power of radical Islamism, few Israelis perceive some great peace option open for the country.
What makes the charge that Netanyahu was politically motivated especially interesting is that there is no real evidence to support such an assertion. This is largely true for all the other accusations thrown against Israel by so many elements in the Western media, academia, and political life. Those making such claims, though they are echoed by a tiny and extreme fringe element within Israel, simply don’t know much about the country and are so eager to cast it in a negative light that they abandon logic, fairness, and the honest search for accuracy.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.