TEL AVIV // With elections just two months away, few analysts doubt that Benjamin Netanyahu's re-election bid has played a major role in the prime minister's decision to assassinate a top Hamas official and launch the most violent offensive in the enclave in four years.
But for some commentators, the military operation in the Hamas-ruled territory this week has an additional, undeclared target for Mr Netanyahu and for his defence minister, Ehud Barak: sending a clear threat to Iran to curtail its nuclear programme or face similar actions by Israel. Both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak are viewed as the main Israeli advocates for a possible strike on Iran, considering its nuclear aspirations as the top danger to Israel's security.
"At first glance, the [Gaza attack] seems to be aimed at the Palestinian arena, but in reality it is geared towards Iranian hostility toward Israel," Amir Oren, a security analyst for the liberal Haaretz newspaper, wrote yesterday. "A force able to strike against [assassinated Hamas leader] Ahmed Al Jabari would be able to pinpoint the location of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And a force that destroyed Fajr rockets would be able to reach their bigger siblings, the Shihabs, as well as Iran's nuclear installations."
Mr Netanyahu has publicly stated that he had approved the military campaign in a renewed bid to aggressively respond to years-long, near-daily rocket barrages on southern Israeli communities by Gaza militants.
Nevertheless, his desire to win a third premiership in the January 22 ballot has left him vulnerable to criticism that the timing of the Gaza operation was aimed at bolstering his image on the security front.
After all, the leader of the ruling, right-wing Likud is being challenged several new, charismatic leaders in the political centre threatening to attract voters aggravated by his government's social and economic policies. He has also been facing growing condemnation that his government has left more than a million Israelis, about 15 per cent of the Israeli population, in the country's south to live in constant fear of the rocket barrages.
Tamir Shaefer, a political analyst at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said: "There is room for scepticism because I don't see any reason to have this operation specifically now. The question here is who can benefit. We know that every time that security issues lead the agenda, the right is the beneficiary."
Some rivals in the centre and left who have blasted Mr Netanyahu for his refusal to conduct talks with Hamas to try to reach a long-term ceasefire in Gaza have been quick to charge that the premier was out to score political points.
Eldad Yaniv, a former close adviser to Mr Barak who had become a frequent critic of the defence minister as well as of Mr Netanyahu, yesterday condemned the Gaza campaign as "old politics".
Mr Yaniv, who last month announced the creation of a new centrist party, said on Facebook: "The same politicians who had abandoned civilians … are suddenly going to war to 'protect' the citizens. But they always go to war before elections. To take pictures with soldiers. They take their leather jackets out of storage. All in a bid for us to unite around them. That way they'll keep their positions for four more years and abandon us just like they typically do."
Mr Barak also has reasons to seek to strengthen his popularity, analysts say. The defence minister and former army chief last year left the centrist, mainstream Labour party to create a tiny centrist movement called Atzmaut, which is yet uncertain to win the required two per cent of the total vote to gain a parliamentary presence.
Nevertheless, some analysts have played down speculation that the Gaza mission is politically driven, claiming that opinion polls already show Mr Netanyahu by far as the leading contender for the premiership.
"I reject those who say that this is about elections," said Gadi Wolfsfeld, an Israeli political scientist. "It's the ultimate cynicism that he wants people to die so that he can win, especially when he is going to win anyway."
Whether or not Mr Netanyahu's approval of the operation was motivated by political considerations, the premier appears to already be gaining politically from the move.
Just like during Israel's deadly three-week invasion into Gaza in December 2008-January 2009, there's been little criticism in the Israeli media about the attacks and the leaders of the largest political parties in the centre have stated their support for it, likely worried they may lose votes if they criticise the operation.
In the only political resistance to the operation, members of the small Jewish party Meretz and Jewish-Arab party Hadash protested late on Wednesday in front of Mr Barak's Tel Aviv home, chanting "Defence minister, defence minister, how many kids did you kill today?" and blasting him as Israel's "No 1 terrorist."