Operation Pillar of Defence Revisited

By Hayden Pirkle


The outbreak of violence between Israeli and Hamas forces that erupted in mid-November 2012 and captivated spectators’ attention across the globe is now just a minor blip on the radar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is amazing how short-term the media’s and the general public’s respective memories can be. Our attention spans are seemingly short, as even major events quickly fall into obscurity. In review, at the time of the latest spurt of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there was widespread speculation among political pundits that the Israeli campaign in Gaza, dubbed “Operation Pillar of Defence”, was fuelled by Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu’s motivations to ensure victory in the forthcoming elections in January 2013. The elections have come and gone. The results are in. As such, it is worth revisiting November’s conflict in order to connect the dots, if any, between Pillar of Defence and the 2013 Israeli elections.

Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched Operation Pillar of Defence on 14 November 2012 in response to sporadic rocket fire coming out of Hamas-controlled Gaza. That day’s most significant event was the Israeli assassination of Hamas’ military commander, Ahmed Jabari, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike. As a result of the assassination, there was a rapid intensification of violence from both sides, although the Gazan population shouldered a disproportionate amount of the force and destruction, as the IDF pounded the densely populated Gaza Strip with a formidable aerial campaign. The violence came to an end eight days later, as Egypt’s recently-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. The brief conflict killed nearly 150 Palestinians and injured upward of 1000, over 200 of which were children. According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, six Israelis were killed, 17 critically or moderately injured, and some 220 ‘lightly’ injured throughout the escalation.

In the eyes of many, the November escalation, falling just two months before the 2013 general elections, was strategically instigated by Netanyahu as a means of diverting public attention from the numerous socio-economic issues that currently plague Israel. Such issues, which include the rising cost of housing and living, have resulted in domestic unrest within Israel. As such, it seems that Pillar of Defense could have been a pre-election attempt to distract the public from the real issues facing the country by drumming up a collective emotional response against a common enemy. This beating-of-the-war drum prior to an election has been used in Israel before. Israel’s politicians and ruling parties have utilized, with varying degrees of success, strategically timed military offensives as a means of galvanizing their respective electorates and redirecting national attention from detrimental domestic issues, as, according to Haaretz, “social and economic problems are edged off the national agenda.”

Perhaps the most telling evidence of an election-based ulterior motive is the event that led to the intense escalation of violence in the first place: Israel’s assassination of Hamas’ military- wing leader, Ahmed Jabari. Jabari was the key actor used by high-ranking Hamas officials to feel out how ceasefire negotiations between the party and the Israelis would be received by the local population in Gaza. He also played a critical role in the release of Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, last year while representing Hamas during the prisoner exchange negotiations. The assassination of such a crucial figure was imprudent for Israel in two ways. Firstly, Israel killed off a key, seemingly pragmatic, figure for potential peace negotiations in the future. Secondly, the Israelis should have no doubt expected a violent response by Hamas. Such a response would in turn result in an escalation of violence between the two sides. Perhaps this was the desired effect. In other words, if Netanyahu wanted to incite a skirmish with Hamas to overshadow burgeoning domestic issues right before an election, he certainly picked the right target. This is not to say that Jabari’s assassination is indisputable proof of an election-based ulterior motive for the Netanyahu regime. There is certainly no direct link in causation between the two; although in my opinion, assassinating such a strategic figure in Israel-Hamas dialogue and negotiations, and thus instigating a round of violence just before a key election, is highly suggestive of such an ulterior motive.

To return to the present, nearly three months since the Egypt-brokered ceasefire, the elections have been held and the process of coalition building has finally concluded. But what were the results? Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, the expected favourite, in conjunction with its electoral ally, Yisrael Beiteinu, won a mere 31 of 120 available parliamentary seats. This is down from the 42 seats that the two-party alliance won in the last election. The surprise of the election was the success of the centrist party, Yesh Atid, which won 19 seats. Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, campaigned for the alleviation of Israel’s socio-economic ailments and championed middle-class interests. Coming in third was the Labour party, which like Yesh Atid, also focused on domestic issues, albeit from a more leftist political position.

To Netanyahu’s chagrin, the coalition-building process proved to be far trickier than he likely ever could have imagined. Nearly six weeks since the elections and after considerable political wrangling, Netanyahu finally formed a coalition. However, although Netanyahu narrowly succeeded in forming a coalition, its composition is without question not the ideal result that he envisioned. Most notably, it includes the centrist Yesh Atid and the pro-settler Jewish Home party, and for the first time in a decade, the coalition government will not include any ultra-orthodox groups. Netanyahu’s new government is expected to focus on domestic socio- economic issues rather than the situation with Palestine. This focus is far more tenuous than posturing political support on the basis of national security.

In sum, Netanyahu and Likud experienced rather disappointing election results, which forced Netanyahu into forming a rather unstable coalition government. It appears that the socio- economic issues that parties like Yesh Atid and Labour based their campaigns upon could not be masked by conflict with Hamas. In other words, if Operation Pillar of Defence was intended to secure Netanyahu and his allies a decisive political victory in 2013, it was a complete failure. What now remains to be seen how the new government will handle the Palestinian situation. Will the presence of pro-peace Yesh Atid within the Netanyahu-led coalition result in the curbing of conflict and resumption of the peace talks with Hamas? Or will the more hawkish voices once again prevail and the tense and unproductive status quo remain?

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