There does seem to be some sort of pattern here, but it is not very consistent.
Five times in Israel since 1980 a right-wing government has called an election without launching a complementary military operation. The right lost two of those elections outright (1992, 1999), more or less tied two others (1984, 1988), and won only one decisively (2006).
On the other hand, three times since 1980 right-wing Israeli governments have combined an election campaign with a major military operation against some Arab or Palestinian target. And this combination, it has been argued, yields decisive electoral success for the right.
Menachem Begin’s government won the 1981 election three weeks after carrying out a dramatic attack on the Osirak research nuclear reactor that France had sold to Iraq. In the view of most outside observers, the reactor was not suited to the large-scale production of enriched uranium and posed no threat to Israel, but the attack was popular in Israel.
Ehud Olmert’s coalition launched the “Cast Lead” onslaught against the Gaza Strip in December 2008-January 2009. The three-week campaign left 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead. The election was held a month later and Binyamin Netanyahu emerged as the leader of a new right-wing coalition.
So here we go again, perhaps? Netanyahu is still the prime minister and the next elections are due in January. What better way to ensure success than to go and bash the Palestinians again? A week later, with 86 Palestinians and three Israelis dead, his re-election is assured: Israelis overwhelmingly support the current military operation.
That’s the case made against Israel. Does it hold water? Well, actually, no, it doesn’t.
Begin’s attack on the Osirak reactor in 1981 may well have been an electoral stunt. But Ehud Olmert was not leading a right-wing government in 2008. He was the leader of a new centrist party, Kadima, formed by defectors from both the right wing Likud Party and left wing Labour.
It is equally hard to believe that Netanyahu is seeking electoral gain by attacking Gaza this month. Every opinion poll in Israel for months past has been saying he is going to win the January election hands down.
Historians traditionally split into two camps: those who see purpose, planning and plots behind every event, and those who think most events are just the random interaction of conflicting strategies, imperfect information and human frailty. This latter approach is known in the historical trade as the “cock-up theory of history,” and it is very attractive as an explanation for the current clash.
Netanyahu, cruising home to an easy electoral victory in January, had absolutely no need for a little war with the Palestinians. Indeed, his strategy of continuously shouting “wolf” about Iran and its alleged nuclear weapons program has successfully distracted international attention from the Palestinians, leaving him free to expand Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank unhindered.
Similarly, the Hamas leaders who ruled Gaza had no interest in triggering a military conflict with Israel. They had every reason to believe that the sweeping political changes in the Arab world were strengthening their position internationally, and they had no need to remind Arabs of their plight. So how did this idiocy happen? Another cock-up, of course.
But since the mini-war doesn’t really serve the purposes of any major player, it will probably be shut down again fairly soon.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. Please let us know if you would like to see this column published regularly in the Ponoka News. Email firstname.lastname@example.org