I'm about to engage in what an Israeli government spokesman characterized on BBC World Service earlier today as "cynical" and "dangerous" speculation. But I am by nature a cynic, particularly when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and anything I might speculate in this blog is certainly no more dangerous than what is going on in the Middle East as I write. So having been fully forewarned by the Israeli government spokesman, I forge blindly ahead....
With just 6 weeks to go before national elections, the lame-duck Israeli government of discredited Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has embarked on a military operation against the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip. Olmert, discredited not only for gross ethical and financial malfeasance, but also for his poor handling of the war against Hizbollah in the summer of 2006, is taking one last long-shot throw of the dice by using the might of the Israeli army in an effort to rearrange the deck chairs of this festering Middle East struggle. 72 hours into operation "Cast Lead" and it is entirely unclear as to how some future Israeli commission of inquiry will view this operation. But I cannot avoid thinking that there is something awfully disgusting and distasteful about launching a ferocious air-based military operation on slum-based Hamas just weeks before an apathetic Israeli electorate goes to the ballot box. It is as if warfare has become nothing more than a campaign tactic.
Olmert himself has nothing to gain or lose electorally from the upcoming February 10 snap elections -- his goose is cooked. But standing to either side of Olmert are two of the principal adversaries in the upcoming struggle over the leadership of the country -- Foreign Minister Zippi Livni (running as the head of the Kadima party list) and Defense Minister Ehud Barak (running as the head of the Labor party list). Of these three politicians, Barak is taking the lead role in this current offensive, and therefore has the most at risk. His Labor party was polling to lose the upcoming election in a spectacular way -- an unprecedented repudiation of historic Labor and Barak himself. Now Barak is all but single-handedly taking responsibility for this air assault on Gaza -- if it is judged a success by the Israeli electorate, Barak could gain against Livni and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu (who is waiting in the wings with an even more bellicose policy, polling as if the next government will soon be his to run). But if this military assault on Hamas boomerangs into another stalemate (as with Hizbollah in 2006), Barak will be as reviled as his predecessor, Amir Peretz, the bumbling Labor leader and inexperienced Defence Minister during Olmert's first war in 2006.
Thus we are witness to an accidental Prime Minister who nevertheless managed to twice drag his country into dubious wars in less than 30 months. One war has been thoroughly dismissed as an unmitigated disaster, a permanent stain on the state and its then-leaders. This new war looks a bit different and a bit the same, but it is only 72 hours old, and the distinctiveness of this war will yet emerge. Already, some of the differences are striking: in 2006 Olmert turned to warfare in a morning's frenetic decision-making, prompted by an incompetent Defense Minister and a trigger-happy Army head. In the waning days of 2008, Olmert has an experienced, seasoned military mastermind as Defense Minister, and a competent professional as Army Chief of Staff. Rather than arrive at a war decision in 4 hours of sudden and rushed consultations, this war began with a careful, deliberative discussion that lasted for many days, and was then punctuated by a long pause before commencing.
What looks the same? At least at the outset, we are looking at the same "air power alone" strategy, which always leads to collateral damage, and often does not achieve intended goals. My bet is that the first 60 sorties of this war, conducted on Saturday, were the most effective -- and with each subsequent day, the targets become less "rich" and rewarding. If the objectives of the air campaign are not achieved in the next 48 hours, what happens next? A ground incursion? Certainly the mobilization of 6700 reservists suggests that route. And then this Hannukah 2008 war against Gaza begins to look more and more like the summer of 2006 war against South Lebanon. Also, the objectives of this war are as vague and imprecise as those of 2006. Innocent civilian casualties are high but not unusually high -- so far. But one mistake, one failed targeting system, and this could quickly turn into the PR fiasco that was 2006.
And thus the question has to be posed: why exactly now? Look at it this way: imagine for a moment if sometime during the presidential campaign of 2008 President George Bush had launched an air campaign against Iran. Certainly some blogger somewhere would have come to a cynical conclusion or two. For the moment, this war against Hamas is registering high marks with the Israeli electorate -- why not? With a 100:1 kill ratio, Israelis like the odds. But if this turns sour? What responsible level-headed politician would dare chance such a thing just 6 weeks out from elections?
The answer is quite simple: right now Israelis are so sick of Hamas and its anxiety-inducing rockets that there seems to be no electoral risk in warring with Hamas. Cynically, there may be another "simple" reason: do it now while Dubya is still running foreign policy, and before the big unknown question-mark named Obama enters the Situation Room.
If everything works out as Israeli military planners promise -- then Ehud Barak will likely gain some traction for the February 10 elections. Livni may be the face most Americans associate with this war because of her frequent appearances on international television (and so it should be with the Foreign Minister in a time of war), but Barak's face is the one Israelis see the most on their own domestic broadcasts. This is Barak's war, and his last-gasp "Hail Mary" pass at electoral relevancy. Think of this war as Ehud Barak's version of John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin. It's that desperate a move. Why Livni -- who was the sole voice raised against the Lebanon escapade in 2006 -- would go along with this folly now is hard to divine. She's got to look as least as tough as everyone else, so that is probably why she is placing her destiny in with this military adventure.
And way out in the tall grass is Netanyahu, posturing always to the right, waiting to see how this all plays out. If it succeeds, no one will praise "Cast Lead" more than Netanyahu. If it fails, watch Netanyahu mop the floor with Barak and Livni. Domestic politics, Israeli style...campaigning for votes while campaigning with soldiers, and placing in harm's way more innocent civilians on both sides. Sickening.