Israel’s attack on Gaza is scrambling that country’s politics in advance of a Feb. 10 national election that will select the leader with whom the U.S. and Palestinians alike negotiate during President-elect Barack Obama’s first term.
Before the Gaza strikes, which entered their fifth day Wednesday after Israel rejected a plan for a 48-hour ceasefire, Israeli observers had widely expected the hawkish Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, to be chosen as the country’s next prime minister. Netanyahu has hired some of Obama’s consultants and imitated his campaign — but isn’t seen as an Obama favorite.
Now, Defense Minister Ehud Barak — President Bill Clinton’s negotiating partner in the late 1990s — is the grim face of an Israeli offensive that appears, for the moment, to be popular and his anemic Labor Party has seen a momentary bump in the polls.
“They’re saying no political considerations will be part of the decision-making process — which is of course quite ridiculous,” said Shmuel Rosner, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post. “Barak is running for prime minister. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is running for prime minister. Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu is running for prime minister. And I’m sure that when they’re all making decisions, they have it on the back of their minds.”
The stakes are high for the American side of the table — and the Israeli political fallout from the Gaza incursion is just the latest real-world dilemma to face Obama during a transition in which future policy headaches seem to increase by the day.
Bill Clinton’s advisers helped Barak beat Netanyahu in 1999, and Democratic leaders are typically more comfortable with the Israeli center-left — Labor and, now, the Kadima Party, of which Livni is the party leader. In a rare venture into a foreign nation’s politics last February, Obama went even farther, rejecting the “strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, then you're anti-Israel.” The intervening year has, if anything, dimmed the prospects for peace and moved the other Israeli parties to the right — but Netanyahu remains the most skeptical of any negotiations toward a two-state peace, a track the new U.S. administration hopes to energize.
“They didn’t want Netanyahu in 1996,” said a Democratic consultant, Hank Sheinkopf, who works in American Jewish politics. “Why would the government of the United States like him now?”
Until the Gaza invasion, the election had played out on lines familiar to Americans, if in mirror image. The unpopular incumbent, Ehud Olmert, dogged by corruption charges and economic malaise, is dragging down his party’s leader, Livni, and her coalition-mate, Barak. With the help of the American consulting firm of Squier, Knapp and Dunn — which also worked for Obama — Netanyahu was selling a message of change. Even his website, as was widely noted, was an obvious copy of Obama’s. (Livni supporters countered with a video of a sultry, shirtless, crooning “Livni Boy,” an echo of the popular “Obama Girl” videos.)
Despite the international preoccupation with the slow-burning conflict with the Palestinians, the focus had been on domestic policy. Netanyahu’s service as finance minister in the boom years of 2003 to 2005 has given him great strength on economic issues.
“He’s considered a wizard who saved the economy,” said Camil Fuchs, a pollster at Tel Aviv University, who said the economic message was the core of Netanyahu’s strength.
The invasion, though, has at least temporarily changed the terms of the election. Fuchs said his surveys show Barak’s Labor gaining dramatically — at the expense of Netanyahu. Labor’s gains have been reflecte in public polls as well, though it still trails the other two leading parties.
“I don’t think that Kadima is moving at all, but Labor is taking from Likud,” Fuchs said.
But those numbers could be transient. The length and conclusion of the conflict will shape the February vote. If it is viewed, like Israel’s 2006 Lebanon war, as an ill-planned disaster, it will be the final nail in the coffin of the center-left coalition. A dramatic victory, though, could revive its prospects.
“It depends — what will the outcome of this conflict be?” said Fuchs. “From now until two days from now is a long time. From now until February is a very long time.”
Still, many analysts expect Israel to defy international perceptions and vote for Netanyahu for reasons of economics, quite independent of the conflict. Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University, noted that with one famous exception — Menachem Begin’s victory following Israel’s bombing of an Iraqi nuclear site in 1981 — Israelis elections tend to be independent of their security situation.
“The election is about corruption, because of Olmert’s indictment, competence and leadership, and the economic crisis,” said Steinberg. “If [Gaza] is a successful operation, Olmert will get some credit and Barak and Livni will share some credit, but the underlying issues for Netanyahu, particularly the economic situation, will still be there.”