Iran chatter may dominate Israel's elections, but the talk will remain just that
The irony of it all is that, in his UN speech, Netanyahu effectively ruled out an Israeli strike on Iran, at least until next summer.
The specific timing of the next Israeli elections may have been determined by the circumstances of the 2013 state budget, but the main agenda of the elections campaign will almost certainly be Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu certainly hopes so. It was the defining factor of his second term as prime minister, the be-all and end-all of his administration and it featured prominently last night in what was his first election speech. In retrospective, it will probably be seen as his second campaign speech, the first being his bomb-cartoon address to the United Nations General Assembly.
The irony is that in that speech Netanyahu effectively ruled out an Israeli strike on Iran, at least until next summer, underlining the fact that Israel cannot decide on its own when it comes to Iran. The ultimate decision will be made in Washington (or Tehran) and the Israeli elections will have little influence on the future of Iran’s nuclear program. That, however, won’t stop it from dominating political discourse for the next three months.
The parties vying for our votes will be divided into two groups. The first, will have an interest in the Iran emphasis and includes of course Likud and Netanyahu’s two rivals who are also former IDF chiefs of staff, Kadima lead by Shaul Mofaz and Ehud Barak’s Atzmaut. Each leader will try and convince voters that they are the safest pair of hands to defuse the Iranian bomb. Netanyahu will claim to have proven himself by putting the ticking nuclear clock firmly on the world’s agenda, where it supplanted the Palestinian issue which no-one hears about nowadays. Barak will slyly imply that only his presence in the cabin, sitting next to the driver, kept Israel out of mortal trouble for the last four years and if we don’t have him back in the Defense Ministry on the other end of the elections, we will regret it. And Mofaz, as he has done practically every day for the last three years, (asides from the seventy days he spent in coalition) will warn of the impending disaster caused by the Bibi-Barak duo’s strategic mishandling.
And then there’s the second group of parties, those not headed by a prime minister or an ex-general, whose line to voters will be – Iran is dangerous, but the real danger to Israel is the economic disparity/education crisis/non-participation of Haredim in workforce and army service/lack of Jewish values/treacherousness of Israeli Arabs/no progress in the peace process/not enough building in the settlements. Each party already has its single-issue platform set out. All they have to do now is convince the public that there are other things to worry about besides Iran. Their success, or lack of it, will decide the size of Likud and the relative degree of power Netanyahu (should he win, though pundits have yet to come up with a convincing alternative scenario) will wield within his next coalition.
And another Iran-related elections issue – will Netanyahu pull a Begin?
Three weeks before the 1981 elections, the Likud’s first-ever prime minister famously sent eight Labor-voting combat pilots on a mission. They not only destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor but also ensured Menachem Begin’s second term in office. Is there any chance of Netanyahu coming up with a similar election-winning operation? His UN speech aside, there are two major reasons that it is hard to see that happen. Ehud Barak and Barack Obama.
Unlike Begin, who was also the defense minister, Netanyahu’s defense chief is now also a political rival busy trying to garner votes from the left. Barak will not allow Netanyahu to pull a stunt like that and ruin his “responsible grown-up” image. The air-force sent 31 years ago to Iraq operated in a very different aerial environment, and could carry out their strike undetected until bombs-release. The scale of an Iranian strike means that the preparations will not elude the beefed-up American military presence in the region. President Obama will have ample warning and time to apply pressure on Bibi to cease and desist.
We will hear about Iran almost constantly throughout the campaign but no October surprise and no elections attack.