Friday, May 11, 2012

Post #264 - Repairing the Earth...or Not

Richard Silverstein wrote this piece, which appeared on his blog "Tikkun Olam/Making the World a Better Place" on May 6:

Israeli Elections Accelerate Iran Strike

Bibi Netanyahu has announced new national elections for September, which he hopes will further solidify what I call the permanent Israeli far-right majority. A majority that portends a further erosion–or perhaps, final disintegration–of what little is left of democracy, civil liberties and everything else embodied in a western liberal state. As if this wasn’t bad enough, there is another weighty matter that could be impacted by a Netanyahu victory: an attack on Iran.

Most observers believe that when Bibi left Washington after his last visit, Obama secured a commitment that Israel would not attack Iran before the U.S. presidential election in November. With the Israeli prime minister likely to win a new term in September, this would set up a perfectly timed opportunity for Netanyahu to launch an attack post-November.

But there is an alternate prospect. In 1981, Menachem Begin attacked the Iraqi Osirak reactor a few weeks before an Israeli election. It was a gutsy move since the Israeli Opposition, most of the world, and especially the U.S. opposed such an attack. If it had gone wrong, Begin might have lost the election. As it was, even with a successful (in the short-term) attack, the election was extremely close and he barely squeaked by. So there is an Israeli political precedent for a prime minister to bet the house during election season with a military attack against an Arab enemy. Besides, Bibi’s predecessor resorted to wars twice during his term believing they would give him a political boost (it’s doubtful they helped much since Israelis eventually came to believe that both were mismanaged).

If Netanyahu did attack in the summer, before the election, he would be in far different circumstances than Begin was. The current Israeli leader has a stable coalition government likely to win the next election. An attack on Iran, though likely to be denounced by the world, would likely play well, at least initially, to the Israeli electorate. From Bibi’s point of view, attacking Iran could transform the election from a mere victory into a historic landslide that would give him not just a mandate, but a historic one that would translate into many more years of right-wing dominance of Israeli political life. Polls taken now show Likud picking up three seats, and Kadima, the sole centrist party under its new leader, Shaul Mofaz, collapsing almost into political oblivion. Even if it joined a coalition with the rebounding Labor Party, it could not muster enough seats to outnumber a far-right coalition.

Though many Israelis deride Netanyahu as being a waffler, deeply cautious, a political turtle, if you will–the man clearly has a Napoleonic-Churchillian complex and grandiose visions of his place in history. This is the sort of plan that would appeal to his over-sized ego. And a resounding victory would provide him the mandate to go to war.

Ari Shavit, writing in Haaretz, sees things a bit differently. He believes Netanyahu will davka attack Iran just after the September elections, but before the November U.S. elections. The benefit to the prime minister, at least as Shavit sees it, is that Obama’s hands will be tied as he will not want to upset the election apple cart in order to take Israel to the woodshed. While I’ve never lost out by setting a very low bar for Obama’s political fortitude, even this might be too much hubris for the Israeli prime minister to assume. It just might be possible for Obama to show some spine if Bibi deliberately tries to exploit a political vacuum before the November election.

Returning to the upcoming Israeli elections, another reason Bibi set them for September, I believe, is a longstanding mistrust of Pres. Obama. He knows the U.S. leader is likely to be re-elected in November. Thus, he wants to present Obama with a fait accompli after the latter’s election. He wants to come at Obama from a position of maximum strength, having just won a resounding election victory in September. This will help insulate Bibi from any of the onerous demands Obama might seek to make of him afterward and guarantee that the president’s next term will offer little in the way of compromise from Israel.

For those who read Hebrew, I relied on several articles in writing this post: Ben Caspit, Ari Shavit and Nahum Barnea, among others.

NB: It should be noted that since this appeared, there has been a significant change in Israeli politics. Netanyahu has been able to gain the collaboration of the Kadima Party in his ruling coalition, and has put off the scheduled elections (for at least another year). This may well make the circumstances described by Silverstein all the more urgent.

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