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Israel’s miraculous missile defense system is saving both a lot of lives and a lot of political careers.
Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2012, during the last eruption of violence between Israel and Gaza. Over the last few days, Israel's Iron Dome has successfully intercepted 90 percent of the rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. For updates on the latest conflict, follow our Live Blog.
JERUSALEM — Israel's touted Iron Dome anti-missile system has taken on the aura of a semi-superhuman piece of machinery — as if it were something out of Skyfall — during the rain of missiles that have come during its conflict with Gaza.
Estimates vary, but experts agree the Iron Dome has been highly successful in intercepting incoming rockets. The system has five anti-missile batteries. These have destroyed 307 out of a total 877 rockets fired, according to a recent tally by Israel's Defense Forces. Experts say that of missiles headed for civilian targets, between 75 and 90 percent have been blocked.
A Hebrew University professor says the game-changing device may also be safeguarding Israel's political panorama — and even its immediate military future.
Two question marks loom over Israel's political life today. The first question is whether the Gaza operation will expand into a ground invasion. The second: how will the conflict affect the electoral campaign, which has virtually been suspended since the beginning of hostilities. Elections are scheduled for Jan. 22.
Gidi Rahat, an expert on electoral politics, said Iron Dome may prove to be "the one silver lining" to emerge from operation Pillar of Defense, as Israel has called the battle.
"Iron dome is an entirely defensive weapon that is saving many lives on both sides of this conflict. The Israeli lives are obvious — this would be an entirely different conflict if the shelters and Iron Dome weren't saving lives — but this is true also for the Palestinian side. If they succeeded in killing more people in Israel, public opinion would support or even clamor for a ground invasion, and you are absolutely not seeing that right now."
"If dozens of Israelis were getting killed, there would be an uproar," he added.
In fact, Iron Dome has proved so successful that Israeli authorities are cautioning against complacency, and Sunday brought a spate of pleas issued by the Home Front Command reminding citizens in the region of Tel Aviv to run for cover when they hear an air raid siren.
"Iron Dome does not mean missiles aren't on their way," one spokesman found himself saying.
Meanwhile, the political campaign has vanished from the landscape.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who was expected to announce he was entering the race on Wednesday, has gone silent.
Labor Party leader Shelly Yechimovich, who was taking a spirited drive against Netanyahu's new union with the ultra-right wing party of his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has restrained herself to statesmanlike utterances of blanket support for the government, underscoring its "reasonable goals of securing life for residents of the south."
Her disappearance as a political opponent led to an internet meme making gentle fun of her clumsy Twitter feed, in which she starts every post with the words "Hi, I'm Shelley."
A poster by Yuval Drier Shilo making the rounds shows a smiling Yechmovich superimposed with the line, "Hi, I'm Bibi," which is Netanyahu's nickname.
Several parties — including the prime minister’s — that have primary elections scheduled for the coming days seem to be in mild chaos. Netanyahu has swatted away all right wing voices calling to delay the elections. The last time a vote was postponed was when general elections were scheduled weeks after the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
The Labor party announced the suspension of all electioneering, but informal events such as pub meetings for new candidates appear to be taking place.
One Labor party candidate, Yehonatan Klinger, a lawyer, posted a cheeky response to Yechimovich's ban on primary electioneering, in which he serenades the party leader while his mouth is taped shut. It may not be the most beauteous warble, but it gets the message out: “we want a voice.”
Olmert, Rahat says, will keep out of public sight "so as not to remind anyone of the Second Lebanon War, which everyone blames him for."
In 2006, in response to constant shelling of its northern communities and the kidnapping of two soldiers, Israel launched the Second Lebanon War. It benefitted from almost universal public support at its beginning but ended, about a month later, in political disaster for Olmert. It emerged that cease-fire negotiations were already underway when the Israeli army ordered a battalion of soldiers into what turned out to be an ambush.
Netanyahu now finds himself in a similar predicament.
Rahay said that, in general, by polling day, elections are not significantly swayed by armed conflict.
"It will depend on the length of this and on the interpretation of the end-point, whether its seen as a victory or as a loss, but on the whole any electoral shift is brief and returns to normal before the vote," he said.
Avraham Diskin, an elections expert also from Hebrew University, agreed. On the whole, he says, the public supports its government in moments of stress, no matter what the conditions. Right and left-wing governments gain public support whenever a "dramatic development" occurs, be it an armed conflict or the launch of peace talks.
"I think most people know who the bad guy is in this story," he said. "They also know that Israel has proceeded with caution. Everybody knows that Israel has the capability of flattening Gaza, so the surgical strikes are a real break with the way most nations respond when attacked by missiles launched in urban areas. Every time you see a picture of a dead baby its breaks your heart, but I think people are not expecting attacks against the government right now."
Diskin pointed to Berlin and other urban centers destroyed during wartime.
Writing in The Telegraph, columnist Dan Hodges agreed.
“Some may debate the wisdom of Israel’s response; others the legality. But please, let’s not get all self-righteous and pretend that if it was British cities currently under rocket bombardment our own response would be a virtuous turn of the other cheek. If the IRA were firing a few rockets or mortars at us, would we start bombing the Falls Road?” Yes, we would, Hodges argued.
"Of course," Diskin added, "this could change. It could completely reverse. It’s a while before January 22."
This story has been updated.