Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had not served in the Israeli armed forces. Livni served in the military from 1976 to 1979, attaining the rank of lieutenant.

Behind Gaza Operation, An Uneasy Triumvirate

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 31, 2008

JERUSALEM, Dec. 30 -- Three Israeli leaders met in secret Friday to review the plan of attack, according to a government spokesman. The targets had been selected, the warplanes readied. Clear skies were forecast over the Gaza Strip.

Hours later, Israeli forces began an aerial assault against the Hamas movement that caught nearly everyone by surprise.

The Israeli campaign is being led not by a single commander in chief, but by a triumvirate of politicians. The three are known to mistrust one another deeply, but all have staked their futures on a highly risky military operation aimed at breaking Hamas's capacity to fire rockets at Israel.

With national elections just over a month away, two of the three are vying for Israel's top job. Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni both have led high-profile but fruitless efforts to achieve peace with the Palestinians; now, each is trying to win favor with Israelis by going to war.

All campaigning for the Feb. 10 vote has been temporarily suspended. But Barak, a former prime minister and ex-army commando, is expected to make the case that he can defend the country in times of crisis. Livni, meanwhile, is seeking to overcome concerns that as a woman who never served in the armed forces, she is not tough enough to lead Israel.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will not be a candidate in the elections and may be indicted on corruption charges. But the Gaza offensive could be his last chance to rehabilitate a legacy badly tarnished by Israel's failure to achieve a clear-cut victory against the Lebanese Hezbollah movement in 2006.

Waiting in the wings is a fourth leading politician, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He has long advocated military action in Gaza and, political analysts say, is well positioned to capitalize on Israeli anxiety if the rockets continue to fly.

For the moment, however, the offensive in Gaza is proving popular with Israelis, and Livni and Barak are reaping the benefits. Recent polls show them closing the gap with Likud party leader Netanyahu, who had opened up a wide lead based on his promise to take a hard line against Israel's main adversaries -- Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.

Political analysts said the looming elections forced Livni, leader of the centrist Kadima party, and Barak, head of the center-left Labor Party, to opt for military action when Hamas resumed its rocket fire in mid-December, after a six-month truce.

"With Netanyahu leading in the polls, and the security situation deteriorating, it would have killed Livni and Barak if they had let 50 or 60 rockets land every day and done nothing," said Reuven Y. Hazan, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Indeed, among Palestinians, there is a widespread belief that the decision to launch the Gaza offensive was driven by Israeli politics. Whenever Israelis prepare to vote, they say, Palestinians suffer from Israeli shows of strength. The Gaza offensive has left at least 370 Palestinians dead. Since Saturday, four Israelis have been killed in rocket attacks.

"The Israeli politicians are using this blood bath for the sake of their political campaigns," said Mustafa Barghouti, an independent Palestinian politician based in the West Bank.

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