The most recent cease-fire agreement with Hamas rattled the Israeli political system. The hawkish defense minister, Avigdor Liberman, resigned in light of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unwillingness to embark on a military operation in Gaza, and other ministers, such as Naftali Bennett, have expressed their dissatisfaction with the Israeli response to Hamas’s aggression. With mounting criticism of Netanyahu’s resolved policy, the general feeling in Israel is that elections are close. Alluding to this instability, many public figures have criticized Netanyahu and his ministers for exploiting the shaky security situation to promote their own political and electoral goals.
Israeli politicians are often accused of exploiting military operations and foreign policy decisions for electoral gains. Despite the prevalence of such accusations, it is unclear whether military operations actually result in political benefits, and if they do, who profits from them.
The political winners and losers of military operations
To test the common Israeli convention that military operations bolster support for ruling leaders and parties, I collected granular data on combatant deaths in Israel since the First Intifada in my recent research. Because combatant deaths are said to be the most salient and measurable consequence of war and conflict, I obtained data from graveyard records generated by the Israeli Defense Ministry. The Israeli combatant deaths in the period that I investigate resulted during multiple confrontations in Gaza, Lebanon and the West Bank.
To assess the electoral costs of war and conflict, I matched these combatant death records with locality-level national elections results. With this data, I tested how variation in combatant deaths within specific localities affected local changes in support for incumbent parties and leaders. Mandatory conscription laws in Israel, combined with my broader empirical approach, confirm that the changes in voting behavior are indeed caused by combatant deaths.
My empirical findings offer that Israelis punish incumbents for the loss of combatants from their localities. Punishment in extreme cases can impose a cost of almost a full seat in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. It follows that an electorally minded leader like Netanyahu should be reluctant to engage in a military operation, especially when elections are around the corner. If a military operation will be costly, Netanyahu and his Likud party may very well pay a costly penalty at the ballot box.
Interestingly, my analyses further suggest that unlike incumbent parties and leaders, who pay a price for the costs of war, hawkish parties, such as Liberman’s Israel Our Home and Bennett’s Jewish Home, actually benefit from the costs of conflict. Indeed, localities affected by the costs of conflict seem to withdraw their support from incumbent parties like Netanyahu’s Likud and gravitate toward more hawkish parties. In contrast to studies from the United States, and consistent with previous studies of the Israeli electorate, I interpret this finding as evidence that combatant deaths bolster hawkish preferences among the Israeli electorate. More broadly, one may expect that as the costs of conflicts rise, leaders like Netanyahu become more dependent on extreme parties and politicians like Bennett and Liberman when seeking to maintain parliamentary stability.
Implications for current Israeli politics
The effects of combatant deaths on voting in Israel shed an interesting light on Liberman’s resignation and Bennett’s criticism toward Netanyahu. Essentially, the two ministers are in a win-win situation. If Netanyahu maintains his dovish policies, they can go on criticizing him and galvanizing right-wing support until the next elections. On the other hand, if their criticism leads Netanyahu to a military operation, they may benefit from the costs of war, which in the past have pushed voters away from the ruling party toward hawkish right-wing parties like Jewish Home and Israel Our Home.
Whether elections will be announced in the weeks to come or take place on their scheduled date next year, it is most likely that Netanyahu’s recent resolve with Hamas will play a major role in Liberman’s and Bennett’s campaigns. Netanyahu will probably be criticized for his resolved policy, which is in clear disjuncture with his hawkish rhetoric. Liberman will try to play up his resignation to mask the promises he failed to deliver on in office, and Bennett will exploit Netanyahu’s reluctance to confront Hamas to enlarge his vote share and potentially secure his spot as a future defense minister.
Since Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, military operations and confrontations with Hamas have been just as common as elections. If, in fact, Netanyahu has been exploiting these operations to secure electoral gains, he has been making an utter mistake. Sending troops into Gaza probably weakens support for the party in office (Netanyahu’s Likud), providing the more hawkish coalition members an advantage in future elections by further polarizing the Israeli electorate.
Chagai M. Weiss is a PhD candidate in the political science department at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.