The U.S. intelligence assessment of Iran's nuclear program is threatening to pull the rug out from under Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who for the past few years led the crusade against the threat from the East. At the same time, the leader of the opposition is not about to let one line in one report wreck his life's work. As far as he is concerned, the danger remains clear and present, and besides, "There will be other reports."
Few people in Israel, and possibly in the world, are more closely identified with the "Iranian threat" than Benjamin Netanyahu. The campaign he is waging against Tehran's nuclear project began, he says, with a speech he delivered to a joint session of Congress in July 1996, after he became prime minister. Since then, Iran has been his personal project. By means of both talk and action, and mainly by means of intense international lobbying, he is seeking the intensification of the economic boycott of Iran.
For Netanyahu, the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran released this week, which states that Iran stopped developing nuclear weapons back in 2003, is almost a personal affront, a slap in the face. His agenda has been snatched from him. Henceforth, the slogan he coined, of which he is so proud - "The year is 1938, and Ahmadinejad is Hitler" - will be greeted with raised eyebrows internationally. After all, what does Netanyahu know that 16 American spy agencies don't know?
Netanyahu thought long about whether to grant an interview, and when he agreed, he showed extreme caution, weighing every word carefully. The memory of his slip of the tongue on the Channel 1 news about the Israeli bombing of Syria is still vivid for him. As with the Syrian issue, Netanyahu is updated to the last detail about the Iranian issue by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the chiefs of the intelligence community, which makes it difficult for him to speak freely. Knowledge sometimes restricts.
Netanyahu views the U.S. report as a serious blow to Israel, as it is liable to ruin a years-long effort to torpedo the Iranian nuclear program. From his point of view, of course, nothing has changed: Iran continues to work on developing a bomb, aiming for the same target date of 2009-2010. That was the assessment of the head of the Mossad espionage agency, Meir Dagan, before the U.S. report, and it remains Dagan's assessment today, after the report has been issued.
"From the standpoint of our national assessment, the Iranian threat has not been removed," Netanyahu says. "The more time passes, the greater it will become. Iran continues to develop fissionable material that can be used to produce nuclear bombs; it continues to declare that Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth; it continues to build long-range missiles; and in addition, it is not hiding its expansionist intentions, which are motivated both by the regime's aggression and by ideology. Why is Iran producing fissionable material, if not for a nuclear bomb?"
Netanyahu is suspicious about the circumstances of the birth of the U.S. intelligence assessment. "This report is contradicted by an earlier one, drawn up in 2005. And anyway, I don't understand all the cheering it generated. You should take note that the same people who claimed that the U.S. entered Iraq because of faulty intelligence are now relying on the same intelligence sources to persuade us that there are no [nuclear] weapons in Iran.
"We, too, have intelligence; we, too, have no few sources of information, and in addition, we don't know what we do not know. I recommend adopting a stringent rather than a lenient approach. History has taught us what happens when you don't identify dangers in time: from Pearl Harbor to the Yom Kippur War and September 11. Even what the report does confirm is sufficiently serious."
If the impression that the Iranians do not have a bomb takes root in the international community, people will say you are hysterical.
Netanyahu: "I heard President Bush say that Iran continues to be a threat and that no option should be ruled out in the effort to prevent it from going nuclear."
Should Israel assume that henceforth it will have to shoulder a military strike against Iran?
"I do not want to comment specifically on the issue of the military option. We always prefer international action, led by the United States, but we have to ensure that we can protect our country with all means. The public expects every government in Israel to take every possible road to remove the threat."
Next week Netanyahu will meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He will ask him to pressure companies in France that are still active in Iran to pull out. He does not say so, but it appears that on the issue of the Iranian threat, maximum coordination exists between him and Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. By the way, a week ago the results of a public opinion survey published here showed that 31 percent of the public believes that Netanyahu is most qualified to deal with the Iranian threat (Olmert received 8 percent in this category, Livni 6 percent, Avigdor Lieberman 13 percent and Barak 20 percent).
In the wake of the report, is Israel now alone in the campaign against Iran?
"I hope not. I believe that the leading governments in the West will not shrug off the Iranian threat just because of one line in the report. The report contains sufficient confirmations of Iran's advanced program to obtain the raw materials to produce a bomb. It is possible that in the short term some will say that the threat is not great, but in my opinion, common sense and the basic information say the opposite. Only those who feign innocence will think that Iran is not trying to obtain nuclear weapons.
"And besides," he adds, "there will be other reports."
If 2008 is no longer the "year of decision," what implications will this have for Israeli politics? On the one hand, it hurts Olmert, because the feeling that we could be nuked at any time would deter members of the coalition from leaving. On the other hand, it strengthens Olmert, because, as last week's poll demonstrated, the public does not see him as its savior in the face of the nuclear horrors. Also, if the Iranian nuclear project is no longer on the agenda, the United States will press for progress to be made on the core issues with the Palestinians. That will prevent the Labor Party from leaving the coalition, but could prove troublesome for Olmert where two other coalition partners are concerned - Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas. And, if the nuclear issue is no longer what it once was, the main reason for Lieberman's being in the government - as the minister for strategic threats - no longer exists.
Maybe that is why this week Olmert's confidants told everyone who wanted to listen that the opposite is true: In the wake of the U.S. report, they said, Israel will have to be a great deal more "active" in dealing with this explosive issue, so the burden on Lieberman will actually increase. Indeed, he has already set up a series of sensitive meetings in the weeks ahead. Lieberman's sense of responsibility will not allow him to abandon the fray, Olmert's people hope. And, they add, it would be "national irresponsibility on the part of the various elements" to dismantle the government at this time.
There is also a fifth factor: In the absence of a nuclear threat in the next six to eight years, what will Ehud Barak's platform be? Until now he has maintained, in private conversations, that "at the moment of truth, when the public has to decide who it wants in control of the button," he will be chosen. That moment of truth appears to be slip-sliding away. Barak will have to make do with the Gaza Strip.
Cigar between his teeth
This is what climbing down from the tree sounds like: "We will consider everything, according to weight and the overall picture - above all, the national consideration. We have on the table the diplomatic process, which began this week, the Syrian issue, the Iranian issue, the fighting in Gaza, and there are social, infrastructure and educational issues in which our people play central roles. And there is also the comprehensive political issue. Yes, we are a political party, we are here in the Knesset and among the public in order to win and return to leading the country. We are here to serve the national interest from the position of leadership of the country, not from the fringes of the arena." (From remarks made by Barak on Monday at a meeting of Labor's Knesset faction.)
In light of this, it is hardly surprising that MK Ophir Pines-Paz, a Barak supporter who in the primaries extracted from him a promise to leave the Olmert government upon the publication of the full Winograd Committee report (on the management of the Second Lebanon War), walked out of the meeting. Pines-Paz did not want to comment this week. He is preparing the blow for the day after Winograd.
Barak already appears to have made a decision, and in a series of similar declarations he scattered during the week, he was preparing people's hearts and minds for the crucial moment of the report's publication, in the wake of which nothing will happen.
He is still leaving an opening. "I have not made a decision," he tells the nosy reporters. "Wait for the report." Some Labor faction members who support Barak have lately been complaining that the man has lost his killer instinct. The Barak of 2007 is not the Barak of 1998-1999, they say. The hunger for victory has disappeared, and the knife between the teeth has been replaced by a fat cigar. The fire that burned in him then, during the period in the opposition, when he and Haim Ramon embittered the life of then-prime minister Netanyahu, has gone out. The killer instinct has yielded to the basic instinct: the basic instinct of the Labor Party to be part of the government coalition - any coalition.
Barak snorts contemptuously when he hears this whining from the Labor faction. "I would not recommend to those people checking out my killer instinct when someone tries to get in the way of my fulfilling the mission I was given by our voters and party members," he says in closed forums. "We have to act in tune with reality. You know, the Knesset is not going to dissolve itself before it has served two years [March 2008]. And besides, who said that parliamentary activity intended to secure a majority for early elections means leaving the coalition?"
Regrettable as it may be, Barak is right, and the decision to remain in the coalition for the time being is a reasonable one. He will pay a personal price in terms of credibility, but that is a tolerable price compared to the alternative: elections in another six months, money spent wastefully, a freeze of the peace process - and then what? A government led by Netanyahu, subject to the desires of the right wing and the ultra-Orthodox, which also would be dismantled long before the end of its term if Netanyahu were to dare to take a hesitant diplomatic step in the Palestinian arena? Or a Barak-led government, which would find it difficult to push ahead with the diplomatic process in the absence of a parliamentary majority? We have already been there, done that; a little stability won't hurt.
Not surprisingly, Barak will not encounter internal political opposition if he decides not to leave the government: All the Labor ministers are opposed to leaving, and so is the majority of the Knesset faction, not to mention the Central Committee or the party's electorate, which is telling the pollsters that it is against breaking up the partnership with Kadima. Pines-Paz will speak out, and Eitan Cabel, the party's secretary-general, will say something, too. Barak will survive that. MK Shelly Yachimovich will not drive Barak crazy over the Winograd Committee report; she is interested in other issues: the status of the Supreme Court and the Economic Arrangements Law. In fact, Barak's opponents in the faction - MKs Amir Peretz, Ephraim Sneh and Yoram Marciano - are in favor of remaining in the government.
The Likud will come down hard on him, but after a day or two it will all be swallowed up in the hullabaloo surrounding the Bush visit. "It's another Olmert spin," a Labor MK grumbled this week. "He convened Annapolis ahead of the decision about Bank Leumi" - the police recommendation not to indict Olmert about alleged improprieties in the bank's sale - "and he is bringing Bush here immediately after the publication of the Winograd report."
Physics according to Aflalo
"Mr. Prime Minister," coalition chairman MK Eli Aflalo said this week, at a meeting of the Kadima cabinet ministers, "I want to tell you in the name of everyone: You have a tailwind from every direction."
On the face of it, that doesn't sound logical, even if it was Aflalo who said it. On second thought, nothing could be more logical. It describes exactly the composition of the Olmert coalition: Labor and the Kadima moderates are puffing from one side; Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas together with the right-wing element in Kadima, led by Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz - who this week visited Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to warn against the Annapolis process (if Sharon were prime minister, Mofaz would have been given the boot after that) - are puffing from the opposite direction. The result: with a tailwind from every direction, Olmert will not move a meter.
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