Published on TheHill.com on January 7, 2009
The ostensible purpose of the war in Gaza is for Israel to wipe out Hamas and eliminate its capacity to rain rockets down on its citizens. Both the dovish leaders in the current Israeli government — Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak — and the international diplomatic community want to get rid of Hamas and leave the more moderate Palestinian Authority as the sole negotiating agent for the Palestinians. So the Israeli attacks have not received the kind of international condemnation and vitriol that they usually attract.
But the real purpose of this war is to get Livni elected prime minister and defeat Bibi Netanyahu. It is no accident that after years in which 8,000 rockets have been fired from Gaza on Israel (3,000 in 2008 alone), the Israeli government chose a moment six weeks before the Feb. 10 election to retaliate. Livni and her likely coalition partner Barak need to show that they are tough enough to lead Israel. And the international community, desperate to avoid a Netanyahu government, is determined to let them.
But it won’t work for one basic reason: Livni and Barak are weak compared to Netanyahu and won’t bring to bear the degree of force necessary to accomplish their objective. Instead, they will wage the war with one eye on the international reaction and will pull the punches needed to bring Hamas to submission. They will not close the Gaza border to supplies, and they will cave in to demands to suspend the ground war long before it has silenced Hamas.
Livni and Barak will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by giving up before final victory is achieved. And their obvious failure to persevere will be all Netanyahu needs to win the election.
After all, Livni, Olmert and Barak have set a very high standard for success. Having triggered the war in order to stop Hamas’s rocket attacks, they cannot stop it and declare victory unless the attacks do, in fact, stop. Hamas cannot let Israel silence its attacks while it still breathes and has life. So the attacks won’t stop. With 1.5 million homes to hide in, the Israeli Army cannot hope to destroy every rocket and every launcher and kill every terrorist. The attacks will continue, as they have continued, day after day, even during the invasion. And, faced with international pressure and the dissatisfaction war is causing in their internal party ranks, Livni and Barak will lose their gamble.
President-elect Obama, for his part, has remained largely silent, declaring that America has “only one president at a time.” But his silence is militated as much by his desire to see Livni get elected as by any support for Israel or reticence to speak out while Bush still serves. He needs Livni to win just as Bill Clinton needed the Labor Party and Shimon Peres to win while he was president. If Israel is to be led by Netanyahu, Obama will be in perpetual conflict with the tough Israeli leader. He will constantly be constrained to try to hold Netanyahu back from military attacks on Iran and on Hamas and Hezbollah, and he won’t bring Netanyahu to any negotiations until the Israeli leader feels he has a partner with whom to negotiate. Netanyahu is not going to play the game of pretending that the emperor has clothes by believing that the Palestinian Authority represents anyone but itself. He will demand that the Palestinians show their interest in peace through negotiations by electing leaders who want to negotiate. Otherwise, land for peace will be DOA in the Israeli Cabinet.
So it is in everybody’s interest that Livni win, except for Israel’s. Because Hamas and Iran represent real threats, not just phantoms, Israel will be ill-served if the current demonstration of toughness leads them to elect doves for the next five years. Doves won’t defeat terrorists.