The Domestic Dimension of Operation Cast Lead in Israel and in Gaza

By January 26, 2009

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 61

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The impending Israeli elections were a significant factor in the recent war against Hamas. The imminent vote played a role in the decision to go on the offensive; and it partially explains why the Israeli media was so supportive of the war. Long-term socio-political and strategic considerations also had an impact on the way in which the war was fought by Israel. For its part, Hamas completely misread the Israeli psyche and political mindset.

One lesson that democracies have learned in modern warfare is the critical role of domestic support for war. Famous examples of the debilitating role of deteriorating domestic support are France’s war in Algeria and the US Vietnam War, as well as the recent protracted war in Iraq. The State of Israel also experienced such ordeals. In both the 1982 and 2006 Lebanon wars, public opinion rallied behind the war at the outset, but then became critical of the political leadership’s management of the war.

In light of these experiences one would have expected hesitation on the part of Israeli leadership in entering a military operation in the Gaza Strip. The fact that this decision came on the eve of an election could have augmented this wavering. Moreover, the Israeli media is known to love passing critical judgment on Israeli military operations.

Surprisingly, the Israeli media was, for the most part, supportive of the IDF offensive in the Gaza Strip. Moreover, most of the Israeli political Left supported the war too; and those leftists who did not were largely ignored by the public.

How do we explain the mobilization of these traditional bastions of criticism behind the Gaza operation? To what extent did the fact that Operation Cast Lead took place in the midst of an election campaign play a role in the conduct of the war?

Paradoxically, it seems that the elections played a significant role in engendering stability in Israeli domestic politics throughout the war – on the leadership, diplomatic and media levels.

On the leadership level, the elections served as an inducement for the military offensive. Minister of Defense Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni undoubtedly feared electoral punishment if the IDF had continued to abstain from retaliating to the daily shelling of Israeli towns in the south. Israeli public opinion demanded that the leadership take action to stop Hamas terror. Both feared that Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu would take advantage of the government’s failing to react. For Ehud Olmert, having withdrawn from the contest, the incentive was reverse; he did not aspire to leave the scene as a failing prime minister who abandoned southern Israel to the terror of Hamas rockets.

For its part, the Israeli media could not ignore the suffering of Israeli citizens being terrorized every day, especially since the breakdown of the six-month ceasefire. Unlike the international media, for whom shelling of Israeli towns stopped being news, the local networks and newspapers could not look away. Hence, it directed criticism at the Israeli government’s “paralysis.” It is also possible that the mostly-left-of-center media feared the ascendance of Netanyahu in light of this paralysis. Once action was taken, they mobilized behind the two candidates that they preferred over the contender from the right.

Most fascinating was the mobilization of the European leadership behind the Israeli “troika” leading the war. By rallying behind Israel after the unilateral ceasefire decision on January 17, European leaders were sending signals not only to the Arab world but also to the Israeli voter: we support the current leadership’s policy.

Domestic politics played a role in other areas of Operation Cast Lead. Israel has learned, like the US prior to the invasion of Iraq, that “non-existential” wars cannot be allowed to become protracted. Public opinion in democracies can be mobilized behind a “small war” as long as it does not develop into an enduring exhausting experience. The number of casualties is a major factor in this type of a thorny confrontation. To be sure, the Bush Administration ignored this lesson in Iraq. Israel could not disregard it.

For a country like Israel, keeping the number of casualties low is an important consideration. Every few years Israel may have to embark on a military campaign that involves casualties; thus the military command must be aware both of the cost-effectiveness of its operations and sufficient justification for the war. For Israel, the norm of “just war” is not a legal doctrine – but a strategic consideration.

Having waited eight years, the government and military had little difficulty assuring the Israeli public that this war against Hamas war belonged to the category of “no-choice” wars. At the same time, the IDF adopted a military strategy that kept Israeli casualties low. In addition, it trained its army for the last two years with this in mind. By adopting these precautions, the political and military establishment assured itself both domestic support and credit to face future challenges.

Finally, we must ask the question: Why did Hamas miscalculate and cancel the ceasefire on the eve of Israeli elections? First, they may have wanted to show valor prior to January 9, when Abu Mazen’s tenure as PA president was scheduled to end – in order to score points among the Palestinians. In addition they may have believed that Israel would not dare start a major operation before its elections. Perhaps.

Probably, a better explanation is that the Hamas leadership did not understand the modus operandi of democratic societies, and it misread Israeli politics.

Another answer may lie in a theory taken from social psychology. In his landmark 1968 study, Prof. Yehoshafat Harkabi argued that Arab hate of Israel on the emotional level reinforces their image of the Jews on the cognitive level. In other words, if the Jews are bad and cruel, they are also cowards.

It is noteworthy that Hizballah leader Hassan Nassrallah after the outbreak of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, and Hamas leader Haled Mashal following the Gaza War, both admitted that they underestimated the Israeli reaction to their provocation. In accordance with Harkabi’s insight, we can say that they misconstrued Israel’s ethos and underestimated its resolve because of their revulsion for Israel.

If so, Hamas truly failed to understand Israel. On the strategic level Israeli leaders feel strongly that, when provoked, the Jewish State must not evince cowardice or show apprehension of going to war – for in the Mideast this is the equivalent of signing your own death certificate. Likewise, on the political level, no Israeli government could have failed to meet the Hamas challenge on the eve of a national election.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Prof. Shmuel Sandler
Prof. Shmuel Sandler

Prof. Shmuel Sandler, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, is a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University, and Dean of Bar-Ilan University’s Regional College system. Email: [email protected]