Olmert, Barak, Livni, and Netanyahu battle to take credit for the Gaza operation.

As Israeli soldiers battle Hamas in Gaza, Israeli politicians are fighting over control of the operation, pursuing their own political interests as much as military strategy. The day-to-day decisions regarding the operation are being made by three government ministers: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Each of them is looking at the operation through a different lens, with decision-making at the top echelon of the cabinet further clouded by the general elections scheduled for February 10.

Olmert, haunted by the public outcry over his decisions during the 2006 war in Lebanon and by series of criminal investigations, was forced to resign, and is scheduled to leave his office in a few weeks. He would like the Gaza operation to exonerate him--to grant him the kind of respect and sympathy he was deprived of during his three years in office. Judging by the adulating way he is now being received at public appearances, the strategy seems to be working. To this end, Olmert is pushing to extend the Gaza military operation further, longing for a clear victory.

Two of the top contenders to replace Olmert are Barak, leader of the Labor Party, and Livni, the leader of Kadima, which currently controls the government. Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the Likud Party, is a strong competitor as well. While fighting Hamas, they are also trying to defeat each other.

Barak is directly linked to the most recent ceasefire with Hamas, having conducted proxy talks behind the backs of government ministers, and then personally lobbying Israeli politicians and the general public to accept the terms. For months, he rejected any military response to the rockets attacks on the south. He went into the operation believing that it should lead to another agreement with Hamas.

Barak's Labor Party had been struggling for months against low levels of support among the Israeli public, with polls predicting a lackluster performance in next month’s election. But since the beginning of the operation, Barak's ratings have sky-rocketed, and the Labor Party has recovered most of its lost ground. (Ironically, Galeb Magadla, the only Arab minister in the government, boycotted a cabinet session in protest against the operation; as No. 15 on the Labor party list, his only chance to get into the next Knesset relies on the successes of the operation in Gaza.)

While working on his own image, Barak is doing his best to diminish Livni’s. During cabinet meetings, he regularly criticizes Livni for having no understanding of military affairs, and often rejects her ideas out of hand. In media briefings by his advisors, she is portrayed as a junior-league amateur. When the UN Security Council decided last Thursday to call for an immediate ceasefire, Barak and Netanyahu described it to the press as the a terrible diplomatic defeat--thinly veiled swipes at the foreign minister.

Livni wanted to launch the operation against Hamas months ago, believing that Israel has no alternative but to dismantle the terrorist group. But when the operation became imminent, she reassessed, endorsing its limited objectives while keeping the complete destruction of Hamas as a longer-term strategic goal. Unlike Barak, she is not interested in any agreement with Hamas; she believes in deterrence.

Livni is trying to establish herself as a leader in a country that has primarily been led by men--and usually ex-generals. Gender continues to be a major hurdle for her; experience is another. The debate over her record--particularly in light of more accomplished contenders like Barak and Netanyahu--is reminiscent of America’s recently concluded presidential race. And like the eventual American victor, Livni is trying to recast the terms of the debate: Is experience, in and of itself, a good thing? Will it help in solving Israel's problems in the future? Livni's campaign slogan is, "The courage to change," trying to counter (quite clumsy, in my opinion) her two perceived weaknesses: “Courage,” because people don't see her as a fighter, and “change,” as a way to turn her lack of experience into an asset.

In the meantime, Benjamin Netanyahu is waiting on the sidelines, and he hates it. The operation against Hamas has disrupted his campaign, which has been going surprisingly well: Though Likud, Netanyahu’s party, currently holds only 12 seats in the 120-member Knesset, opinion polls before the operation predicted that it was poised to triple its representation in the elections, giving Netanyahu enough power to form a coalition and become prime minister again.

The fighting in Gaza now gives his opponents the opportunity to bolster their hawkish bona fides and win support away from Likud. Past experience seems to indicate that during times of military tension, people move to the right--and a dubious outcome of the operation will no doubt help Likud. But Netanyahu doesn't like to run a campaign in a climate of uncertainty. And a prolonged military operation might convince enough Knesset members to postpone the elections, giving his rivals enough time to make up ground in the polls.

Netanyahu is supporting the operation in public and eloquently defending Israel in interviews to foreign media. But as soon as operation is over, no matter the outcome, his party will immediately go on the offensive, arguing, “We would have achieved more.”

The Israeli defense establishment is also divided. Gabi Ashkenazi, the chief of general staff, is reluctant to deepen the IDF penetration into Gaza; the public outcry after the 2006 Lebanon war has taught him to be extremely cautious and not to risk lives of soldiers unless it is unavoidable. Yoav Galant, the commander of the southern command, believes that Israel should pursue Hamas to the end--representing a common perspective from military commanders on the ground, particularly from one who planned the operation and spent many months lobbying for its implementation. Meir Dagan, the head of the Mossad, shares his opinion.

The political jockeying will only intensify as Israel enters what looks to be the last days of its operation in Gaza, influencing the final outcome as much--if not more than--security concerns. These personal and electoral calculations must be taken into consideration by the international community if they want to be successful in their efforts to negotiate a ceasefire.

Nahum Barnea is a political columnist for Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s largest daily newspaper.


By Nahum Barnea