Israel's Key Election Issue: Did War End Too Soon?

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By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 2, 2009

JERUSALEM, Feb. 1 -- Just over a week before Israel holds elections to choose a new government, the outcome of the war in the Gaza Strip has emerged as a central issue in the campaign, with the candidates sparring over whether the massive military operation went far enough.

The argument reflects the reality that elections here often turn on a single question: Who looks tougher on national security?

The war, initiated to stop Hamas rocket fire that has persisted for years, was viewed by many here as motivated at least in part by electoral politics. Two of the three Israeli architects of the war, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, are candidates to become the nation's next prime minister.

The operation in Gaza drew condemnation abroad for the high Palestinian death toll, and praise at home for the relatively low number of Israelis killed. But it has not done much to elevate Barak's or Livni's prospects of winning the top job. Now their even-more-hawkish opposition is on the offensive.

In recent days, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who according to polls appears poised to reclaim his old job, has argued in speeches and interviews that his political rivals ended the war prematurely. Israel, he says, should have destroyed Hamas -- which he views as an outpost of Iranian power on Israel's southern border -- rather than withdrawing amid a shaky cease-fire. He has left little doubt over what he would do if elected.

"The next government will have no choice but to finish the work and remove the Iranian terror base for good," he said in a radio interview last week.

One of his top lieutenants in the right-wing Likud party, Zeev "Benny" Begin, was even more emphatic at a rally in Jerusalem, describing the military operation in Gaza as a failure. "One million Israelis remain under the threat of rockets," Begin, son of Israel's first Likud prime minister, Menachem Begin, told a cheering crowd. "After this operation, the terrorists came out of their hiding places waving not white flags but the green flags of Hamas."

In Israel's fractious political culture, left and right are generally determined by a party's relative willingness to cede land to the Palestinians in exchange for a peace deal, as well as by its criteria for going to war.

Netanyahu's Likud has generally been critical of U.S.-backed negotiations between Israel and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, which are aimed at creating a Palestinian state. Netanyahu has also advocated an uncompromising stand against Iran, particularly when it comes to that country's nuclear ambitions. But during his tenure as prime minister in the late 1990s, he demonstrated a willingness to govern more pragmatically than he had campaigned, agreeing to a limited peace accord with the Palestinians on control of the West Bank city of Hebron.

Likud's criticism of the recent Gaza operation is aimed squarely at Netanyahu's two main rivals for the prime ministership, Livni and Barak. They have strongly defended the conduct of the military campaign, while also hinting that Israel is not finished in Gaza and that there could be more attacks before the Feb. 10 elections.

"We are on the right course to achieve peace and quiet," Barak, leader of the center-left Labor Party, told students in the seaside city of Herzliyya. "The operation had real accomplishments. Our deterrence has been restored. Hamas was dealt a blow like no other since its creation."

But he also vowed that Israel would "keep one hand on the pistol."


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