Early elections means Netanyahu is taking his foot off the Iran pedal
If 2012 was indeed a 'critical year' the prime minister would have stuck to the original elections date, keeping his critical year free from political distractions.
The main conclusion from Benjamin Netanyahu's decision to dissolve the Knesset and hold elections on September 4 is that the Iranian nuclear threat is not Israel's number one priority. If 2012 was indeed a "critical year" and time is running out for dealing with Iran, the prime minister would have stuck to the original elections date, a year later, keeping his critical year free from political distractions.
Some Israeli analysts have pointed out that Netanyahu is anxious to hold elections before the American presidential election. He fears that if Barack Obama is re-elected, things will become more difficult for him on the international stage, with a second-term president, freed from the pressures of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. But this would be an even more compelling argument to devote months left of the American elections season, when Israel can do no wrong, to concentrate on Iran.
Not that Iran won't be an issue in these elections. Defense Minister Ehud Barak is going to keep it on the agenda, his only claim to the public's vote is the "need for a steady and experienced hand on the steering wheel." He was very clear about this at the launch of Atzmaut's election campaign on Wednesday – Israelis must join him "so I can continue serving in a position of influence and power in the next government as defense minister."
But Barak reads polls and he knows that his chances of crossing the electoral threshold are slim. If he fails to re-enter the Knesset, Netanyahu could still keep him defense minster as a personal appointment but it is highly improbable that his Likud membership, or the other parties who will partner him in a coalition, will allow this. And Netanyahu may not win anyway.
Do the early elections mean that a strike on Iran is out of the question until the polls close? Barak has four more months left at the helm of the defense machine – and as he made clear in his interview with Yisrael Hayom on Thursday, that his critics are "serving Iran" and he does not trust anyone else to make the crucial decisions. As it is, he is the leading proponent of the theory that Iran is nearing the "immunity zone" in which its nuclear program will be impervious to attack. We shouldn't rule out pressure from his part for military action. But would Netanyahu go along with him?
Unlike Barak, who is lead by his own ego, Netanyahu is a creature of opinion polls and he know that while the public still sees him as the leader most trusted to deal with Iran, a majority of Israelis are still skeptical that an attack is justified. In 1981, Menachem Begin ordered an attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor just three weeks before the elections, but that was a process that took place under complete secrecy. The debate over a possible Iranian attack is in the open and Netanyahu is aware he is vulnerable to accusations of playing with Israel's strategic future for political benefit. It would probably be a safer bet for him to use the Iranian threat as a reason to vote for him, but not actually do anything about it before September 4.
How will the opposition respond to an Iran-centered campaign? I highlighted here earlier this week Shaul Mofaz's first Knesset speech as Kadima leader in which he accused the government of a "despicable propaganda campaign aimed at deflecting and preventing the public debate on the question of our social identity." He has promised not to use the Iranian issue for political gain and to campaign on social and financial issues instead. He can rely for now on his old colleagues in the defense establishment to keep on attacking Netanyahu on Iran for him. But if Bibi and Barak manage to capitalize on this issue, will the former IDF Chief of Staff, Defense Minister and now chairman of Knesset Foreign and Defense Affairs Committee, not be tempted to join the fray, reminding the public that he knows the Iranian file just as well, and not because he was born in Tehran.
Mofaz's defense credentials are also what sets him apart from his two rivals for the premiership and that may tempt him to abandon the social agenda, on which also Shelly Yacimovich and Yair Lapid are expected to campaign vigorously. Neither leader currently has a senior security figure on their Knesset lists and they are both vigorously courting ex-generals who can back them up if Iran indeed dominates the elections news-agenda.