Friday, 23 November 2012

Analysis: Elections after Gaza

Israel returns to the campaign trail

By Matthew Kalman in Jerusalem

Israeli politicians allowed themselves a 24-hour respite following Wednesday’s unprecedented ceasefire agreement with Hamas before resuming their campaign for the general election, now just 60 days away.

The ceasefire that ended eight days of bloody conflict appeared to be holding, except for one incident in which a Palestinian protestor was shot dead and 19 wounded when Israeli troops opened fire on a crowd the army said began throwing stones at soldiers and then “attempted to cross” the border.

A Hamas spokesman said the group would complain to Egyptian mediators, but both sides seemed inclined to play down the incident.

Before the violence erupted, sending more than a million Israelis into bomb shelters and 70,000 reservists to their military units, polls indicated that the re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was guaranteed.

Critics suggested that Mr Netanyahu attacked Gaza in order to increase his support at the ballot box – although recent Israeli politics teaches a different lesson. Three of Mr Netanyahu’s predecessors who went to the polls after going to war – Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert – all lost their positions shortly after launching military campaigns.

Ironically, the Israeli prime minister, long celebrated for his hawkish views, now faces the opposite problem – how to sell his own hardline supporters on his decision to cancel the much-heralded ground invasion of Gaza.

Commentators have been taunting Mr Netanyahu with his own criticism in 2009 of the previous government for halting Operation Cast Lead “without finishing the job.”

A poll published by the Maariv newspaper on Friday showed 49% of the Israeli public favoured continuing the military operation, but a much larger proportion of voters in Mr Netanyahu’s own party, some 68%, opposed the ceasefire.

Signalling a return to business as usual, Opposition Leader Shaul Mofaz of the Kadima Party requested that parliament be recalled to debate Mr Netanyahu’s “failure.”

"The goals of his operation were not reached, and the next round is only a matter of time," Mr Mofaz said. "We should not have stopped at this stage. Hamas got stronger and we did not achieve deterrence."

Friday’s poll showed Mr Netanyahu’s position almost unchanged since early November, with a majority 69-seat block in the 120-seat Knesset parliament.

Perhaps the clearest indication that Mr Netanyahu’s victory is already sealed is the decision this week by his nemesis, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, not to run. Mr Olmert is wildly popular with many Israelis despite being convicted on corruption charges, being excoriated by a commission of inquiry over his handling of the Lebanon War in 2006, and bearing responsibility for Israel’s handling and subsequent international isolation over the last invasion of Gaza in 2009.

Mr Olmert apparently concluded from his own polling that he would be unable to unseat Mr Netanyahu in January.

Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister, is expected to announce her return to politics next week at the head of a new centreist party. It will not affect Mr Netanyahu but will further splinter the opposition, already hopelessly divided among several parties and without a credible alternative for the premiership.

The now-tiny Left in Israel hopes the fallout from the conflict will help them challenge Mr Netanyahu’s economic policies, which have brought vast wealth to a few tycoons and stabilized Israel’s once-notoriously volatile economy but failed to improve the lot of the salaried middle-class.

Avshalom Vilan, a former elite commando and former Knesset member for the left-wing Meretz party, said a “country fighting for its life, spending vast amounts of money on its defence” cannot also pay to improve health and education.

“The huge cost of this single one-week operation demonstrates that the resources required to deal with social issues are swallowed up by security demands,” said Mr Vilan. “There is no progress on social issues without progress on diplomatic issues. They are all connected.”

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