Israeli leaders fighting a war within a war


WITHIN HOURS of the first air sorties against targets in Gaza a week ago, at the start of Israel's war against Hamas, defence minister Ehud Barak declared that he was putting the election campaign on hold in order to function as a "full-time defence minister" for the duration of the military operation.

The other political parties quickly followed suit, announcing the suspension of electioneering for the February 10th election campaign until the operation in Gaza was over. The right-wing Likud party even replaced its election hoardings with slogans in support of the troops and the beleaguered residents of the south.

However, with two of the triumvirate running the war also leaders of two of the three main parties, it is clear that political considerations are a key factor in the decision making process.

The first week of the war coincided with a surge in popularity for Mr Barak, leader of the centre-left Labor Party. According to a poll conducted by Channel 2 television, his rating as defence minister shot up from 23 per cent to 60 per cent. Polls now predict 16 seats for Labor in the 120-seat Knesset parliament, compared to 11 before the start of the war.

Foreign minister Tzipi Livni, head of the centrist Kadima party, tried to portray the election as a choice between Kadima and the right-wing Likud party, headed by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But a significant increase in support for Labor is likely to come at the expense of Kadima.

For Ms Livni, who is portrayed by her political opponents as lacking the experience to be prime minister, particularly in security matters, the war is an opportunity to appear tough on security issues.

For weeks before the campaign the foreign minister argued for a strike against Hamas, even advocating bringing down the Hamas regime, whereas Mr Barak urged caution and spoke in favour of extending the ceasefire.

Mr Barak wanted Israel to consider the midweek proposal by French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner for a 24-hour "humanitarian " ceasefire.

The defence minister argued that if Hamas failed to stop the rocket fire during the 24-hour period, Israel would be legitimately able to continue and even intensify its military campaign. If the truce held, Mr Barak believed it could provide the basis for a permanent arrangement that would end the rocket fire.

But Mr Barak was overruled by prime minister Ehud Olmert and Ms Livni. Ms Livni even criticised him for stepping on her turf and conducting diplomatic contacts instead of concentrating on running the war. There is no love lost between the two.

According to Israeli commentators, Mr Barak, who is also Israel's most decorated soldier, believes the foreign minister is out of her depth in security matters. His solution is to ignore her.

There is also no love lost between Mr Olmert and Ms Livni, who replaced him as leader of Kadima. A few days ago the prime minister asked Mr Netanyahu to join Israel's information campaign to convince the world of the justification of the fierce military campaign. The Likud leader, dubbed "the soundbite king", agreed immediately, granting dozens of interviews to the world media in his perfect English.

Associates of the foreign minister, who speaks English in a faltering, heavily accented voice, interpreted the move as an effort to undermine Ms Livni.

The three leaders are competing to claim credit for the war, which remains very popular among the Israeli public. If things go wrong it may become a case of apportioning the blame.