Election campaigns in Israel are marked by high-profile military action, particularly when the party in power is in distress. The unstated assumption of our leaders is that the (Jewish) public loves easy military victories, and such shows of force are meant to buttress the image of the prime minister and defense minister and convince the voter that they must remain in office.
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The examples are many, and they cut across party lines: the escalation in retaliatory actions prior to the 1955 Knesset election; the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981; Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon in 1996; Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008; Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in 2012; and on Sunday the helicopter attack in Syria “attributed to Israel” was added to the list. All of these operations require advanced preparations. There will always be the explanation that the enemy was the one to start it and that Israel was only responding to a provocation or heading off a greater danger. In any event, however, it is difficult not to get the impression that politicians tend to take risks and approve military action with greater ease when some of the polls paint a gloomy picture over their standing with the voters.
In the current instance, the shrieks of excitement over the successful assassination of Hezbollah figure Jihad Mughniyeh are perfect for the “Red Phone” and “Adult in the Kindergarten” videos that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is distributing, and for Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s fight to remain in office. The worn explanation that “Israel has not taken responsibility for the bombing” looks more ridiculous than ever when Netanyahu and Ya’alon are continuing on with the image campaign that they led during last summer’s war with Hamas and its allies in Gaza. We are experienced and responsible and are strong in the face of Hamas and Hezbollah, is their message. The implied message is that their political rivals, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and his partner at the head of the joint Zionist Camp ticket, Hatnuah’s Tzipi Livni, would not have the courage to take such decisions.
Clearly it cannot be proven that this week’s military action in Syria stemmed from electoral considerations rather than purely out of an effort to defend the country, but the circumstantial evidence of political influence is weighty. The time has therefore come for a new policy of an abundance of caution in the run-up to elections. Netanyahu and Ya’alon, who only months ago were boasting of their restraint, responsibility and good judgment in the face of calls to conquer Gaza and depose Hamas, need to also embrace those same principles when an election is in the offing and their opponents from the Zionist Camp are moving ahead of them in the polls.