Analysis: Barak proves man for the moment

By Daniella Peled - Foreign Editor, December 31, 2008

A week is a long time in Israeli politics, too. Labour leader and defence minister Ehud Barak has long been a non-entity, languishing in the polls, his party an irrelevance.

But Barak seems to have pulled off an astonishing reversal. The operation in Gaza positions him as a man to lead in a crisis — and puts him in stark contrast to his predecessor as both Labour leader and Defence Minister Amir Peretz, whose performance in the Second Lebanon War was laughable.

Amongst his colleagues, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been given the opportunity to improve his legacy and perhaps ensure he will not be remembered only for the dismal failure in Lebanon II and multiple corruption investigations. But he is a busted flush and everyone knows it.

Foreign Minister and Kadima head Tzipi Livni is doing what she has made her speciality — the internationally respected stateswoman operating at the most senior levels — and this gives her a chance to bolster her sometimes lacklustre image.

But Binyamin Netanyahu, as head of the Likud and opposition leader, is the automatic political loser while the fighting is ongoing. His script is already written: whatever happens, he will say the operation came too late and ended too early. The question is whether he will have enough time after the fighting ends to convince people he could have managed it better.

Yet those commentators who say this military episode was an intentional move ahead of the Israeli elections are over-simplifying the situation. The operation was inevitable from the moment Hamas decided not to renew the truce — perhaps even before.

Although it is sickening to talk in terms of “collateral damage”, so far no-one disputes that most of the deaths in Gaza have been of armed men or Hamas operatives rather than civilians. But it is impossible to carry out air operations in a place as crowded as Gaza without civilian casualties and the longer the strikes continue, the higher the chance of a mass tragedy on the scale of that in Qana, Lebanon in 2006.

And few in Israel have any sympathy to spare for the civilian suffering in Gaza or the high body count. What will matter at the polls is the perceived success of Operation Cast Lead. It began with a bold and daring military strike — but even considering the substantial blow dealt to the Hamas leadership, Israel fully expects a massive barrage of rockets in return. Thus far, the army has been surprised by the relatively low number of missiles being fired out of the Strip. This is unlikely to last. What the Israeli public wants is for the rocket fire threatening some 500,000 of its own civilians to end and it will back those whom it believes can bring this about - or even damage Hamas to the point where another ceasefire will be negotiated. That will be counted as a success. But a ground offensive with high IDF casualties, a Hamas ground-to-air missile downing a plane, or suicide bombings within Israel will bring public anger on the government.

For now, as ever, voters will rally around the government as long as the cannons are roaring. Olmert enjoyed near-unanimous support in the early stages of Lebanon II. It was only later that public anger grew over the impossibility of its aims, its mismanagement and the gross failings of the civil defence system.

In 2006 the political establishment doomed themselves with fatuous claims that their mission was to destroy Hizbollah. This time, apart from Livni’s recently stated wish to “topple the Hamas regime”, they have shied away from such promises.

The latest polls show Barak and Livni edging forward and Bibi falling back, although it is far too early for any conclusive lead to emerge. As soon as the dust settles on this operation, the political map will be redrawn again.

Last updated: 2:27pm, November 8 2010