Israel's Gaza Dilemma: How the War Helps Hamas

Only a few weeks ago, Ehud Barak's political prospects were a joke. When he appeared in late December on the Israeli equivalent of "Saturday Night Live," the defense minister drew the loudest guffaws when he suggested he might actually win the upcoming election for prime minister. It would have pained the Jewish state's founders—who thought of Barak's Labor Party as the epitome of the secular Zionist ideal—to see their heirs ridiculed. But the party, once influenced by Karl Marx and still the political anchor of the Israeli left, has long been in decline. This past November the dovish novelist Amos Oz declared, with a Hegelian flourish, that Labor had "completed its historic role."

Since the bombs started falling in Gaza, however, the fortunes of Israel's leftists have been strangely reinvigorated. For months Israel's hawkish opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu had been leading polls in the run-up to parliamentary elections on Feb. 10. Yet the Gaza war—popular at home if not abroad—has bolstered his rivals. A poll released last week shows a doubling in support for Barak's Labor Party—which is now predicted to win 15 seats in Parliament instead of seven. Another suggests that the defense minister's personal popularity has soared by 19 points. More important in Israel's coalition politics: Tel Aviv University pollsters say a broader left-wing bloc including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's Kadima Party has pulled even with Netanyahu and his allies; polls show each camp now winning 60 spots in Israel's 120-seat Parliament. Gaza's outcome was still in doubt at the end of last week, and much of this support could prove ephemeral. But it would be supremely ironic if the war, which has infuriated peace activists around the world, ends up delivering Israel's doves to power.

With more than 800 dead in Gaza, including many civilians, there's something vaguely Orwellian about referring to Barak and Livni as "doves." The war's moral cost has been immense: a strike on a U.N. school last week killed more than 40 people, and the Red Cross accused Israel of violating international law by failing to assist wounded Palestinian civilians. Compared with Netanyahu, who regularly rails against dividing Jerusalem and handing back land to the Palestinians, Barak and Livni are much more flexible about the concessions required to achieve peace. But they're benefiting from taking a hard-line stance toward Hamas. Netanyahu has long been the loudest voice calling for a crushing strike against Gaza. Barak is "doing well … because he's doing what Netanyahu told him to do," says Israeli historian Tom Segev. "It's really Barak the general [the people are] behind—not Barak the leader of Labor. They're not the same person."

As Labor leader, Barak has stepped into the shoes of some of Israel's most iconic figures. Shimon Peres, Israel's president, is the movement's best-known living alumnus. (In 2005 Peres defected to Kadima.) Labor Zionism's secular kibbutz culture—infused with communal ideals and revolutionary ardor—is one of the state's most enduring romances. It was always more myth than reality; as times changed, the kibbutzniks evolved. Yet Israel's founders had in fact grown up in what Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Hebrew University, refers to as an "age of ideologies" at the turn of the 20th century. Then the world was swirling with intriguing new "isms." Now the founders' grandchildren have little use for utopias. Labor's decline, Ezrahi says, is partly about "the victory of pragmatism over ideology."

Barak, a war hero turned dove, is suited to such times. As an officer in Israel's elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit in the early 1970s, he stole into Beirut disguised as a woman to assassinate PLO operatives responsible for the murders of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics the year before. Yet decades later, as prime minister, Barak angered right-wing Israelis by pulling out of Lebanon, negotiating over the Golan Heights and indicating he would return Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and the West Bank to the Palestinians as part of a peace deal. Livni also defies easy categorization. A onetime Mossad spy, Livni began her political career in Netanyahu's Likud Party, but later joined Ariel Sharon's Kadima after deciding a two-state solution was inevitable. With Arabs soon to outnumber Jews, the thinking went, Israel could not remain both Jewish and democratic without giving up Gaza and parts of the West Bank.

It's far from clear, though, whether Barak and Livni's surge will last long enough for their loyalists to dominate the elections and ultimately strike a peace deal. If casualties mount and international outrage intensifies, Israelis will likely turn against the war, as they did in the summer of 2006 during the Lebanon conflict. And even as Barak and Livni peel off centrist voters from other parties, they risk alienating their bases the longer the war goes on. Already Barak seems to be preparing the political ground if the fighting takes an unexpected turn. Last week, as Israeli leaders debated whether to expand the conflict into Gaza's city centers, a leak claimed that the defense minister opposed intensifying the ground war, even as other cabinet members lobbied to broaden it. "He doesn't want to push it," says one source close to Barak, asking not to be identified in order to speak freely. Livni is said to have taken a similar line.

If, on the other hand, a ceasefire is struck while Hamas remains in charge of Gaza, Netanyahu is likely to say the war ended too soon and its outcome would have been more decisive if he'd been in charge. The implication, according to Yossi Beilin, one of the deans of Israel's peace camp, is that Israel's military "was on the verge of victory—and then we stopped one day short. It's very difficult to refute something like this." Still, at that point, peace talks in order to strengthen Palestinian moderates at the expense of Hamas will become only more important. Israeli voters might prefer an enthusiastic backer of negotiations in the P.M.'s chair, rather than an obstructionist like Netanyahu.

But with Israeli leaders voting late last week to fight on in defiance of the U.N. Security Council, Palestinian doves are in trouble. President Mahmoud Abbas has already lost credibility because of his fruitless talks with the Israelis. The Islamists "are not going to be eradicated," says Mohammed al-Masri, an Abbas loyalist and former Gaza intelligence chief. "Hamas will come out stronger on the ground than before." The resurgence of Israel's doves won't bring peace if their Palestinian counterparts are crippled in the process.