Whatever Netanyahu’s motivations, there was no doubting the electioneering behind the call from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — a fading Netanyahu challenger from the right — for Israel to deliver a “disproportionate” response to Hezbollah’s attack.
Netanyahu will know from experience, however, that elections in wartime are risky. Support for incumbents is boosted as long as the war is underway and going well, but once the guns are silent it quickly disappears. Operation Cast Lead, the 2008-2009 attack on Gaza, did not save the incumbent Kadima from losing to Netanyahu in 2009, while Netanyahu’s own first Gaza campaign, Operation Pillar of Cloud in late 2012, still saw him only narrowly scrape by in the early 2013 elections. If a war does not go well — and Israel’s wars in Lebanon never have — there can be political hell to pay. Kadima leader Ehud Olmert’s defeat can be ascribed to his bungling of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and he had two and a half years to repair the damage before going to the polls; Netanyahu has less than three months.
Retired Major General Yoav Galant, once designated to take over as the top commander of the Israeli military and now running for a rival party to Netanyahu's, bluntly charged last week that the Quneitra strike was politically motivated. If so, it would be undertaken with a view to boosting Netanyahu’s hawkish appeals without creating an unpredictable spiral of escalation. But that would be a profoundly risky strategy, as Wednesday’s strike would confirm. The long history of Israel-Hezbollah engagements suggests the parties can all too easily be drawn into confrontations that both might prefer to avoid. Indeed, there’ll be plenty of people in Lebanon and Israel who’ll be hoping that after Wednesday’s events, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Netanyahu will settle for a draw.