The upcoming Knesset election will be a referendum on a single issue: going to war against Iran. It won't be about social policy, or drafting the ultra-Orthodox or annexing the territories. All these are important issues, but secondary. The election will revolve around the question of whether the next government will order the Israel Defense Forces to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made this clear Monday night in an interview with Channel 2 television's "Uvda" program. Asked by "Uvda" host Ilana Dayan, "Can you promise that Iran won't have a nuclear program by the end of your next term?" Netanyahu answered simply, "Yes."
Read his lips: Netanyahu publicly promised to destroy the Iranian nuclear program if he is reelected. As the interview proceeded he reiterated that this is no bluff, and he will not be deterred from action even by American opposition or the reservations of senior defense officials. These statements come on top of similar remarks over the last few weeks, including his speech to the UN General Assembly, in which he set the "red line" at next spring or summer, and his interview with Paris Match, in which he promised that "Five minutes after" the strike, "a feeling of relief would spread across the region."
It will be impossible to accuse Netanyahu of waging a war of "deception," as Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon were during the first Lebanon War. He has made his intentions clear in advance, rather than clouding them with ambiguous wording. He hasn't pretended to easily digestible goals like the "40-kilometer limit" that concealed the true goals of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon - occupying Beirut, driving out the Palestine Liberation Organization and crowning Lebanese Christian leader Bashir Gemayel king of the land. With Netanyahu, everything is clear and known in advance.
It's easy to dismiss the prime minister's aggressive statements as pre-election boasting, a transparent maneuver aimed at diverting the debate to the Iranian issue, which is convenient for Netanyahu, and away from social issues, which are convenient for his rivals. This theory is bolstered by the lifting of censorship from a 2010 discussion in which Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak sought to put the IDF on alert for an operation against Iran, but ran into opposition from the chief of staff as well as the head of the Mossad at the time. This story had previously been barred from publication. The fact that it was approved for broadcast on "Uvda" this week shows that Netanyahu and Barak want to portray themselves as aggressive and self-confident, in contrast to the supposedly defeatist Gabi Ashkenazi and Meir Dagan.
Yet the important question is not what happened in 2010 but rather what will happen in 2013. History teaches us that talk of war before an election tends to come true after it. That was the case in 1955, when David Ben-Gurion returned to the Prime Minister's Office, leading to the Sinai Campaign in 1956. That was also the case in 1981, when Begin roared at rallies, "Assad watch out, Yanush and Raful are ready," one year before he sent Chief of Staff Rafael "Raful" Eitan and Maj. Gen. Avigdor "Yanush" Ben-Gal into Lebanon. The modern-day version of this speech was supplied by Netanyahu's mouthpiece, the daily Israel Hayom: On the day Amir Eshel was appointed commander of the Israel Air Force, the newspaper splashed his picture on the front page under the headline "The [formation] leader."
Netanyahu wants to seem like his predecessors, who, in his words, periodically flouted the world powers - Ben-Gurion by announcing the establishment of the state, Levi Eshkol by embarking on the Six-Day War - or ignored the opposition of the defense establishment, as Begin did in bombing Iraq's nuclear reactor. His statement that Israel can't depend on America to fight instead of it and on its behalf recalls aggressive statements by Ben-Gurion such as "Oom Shmoom" (a dismissive reference to the United Nations ) or "It doesn't matter what the goyim say, what matters is what the Jews do." People say you don't have the courage to press the button, Ilana Dayan challenged him, and Netanyahu replied: "Of course I'm capable of it if I need to."
Over the course of his four years in office, Netanyahu has accustomed the world to the idea that Israel will attack Iran. Now he is asking the Israeli public for a mandate to do so, which would enable him both to overcome his own hesitations and to neutralize opposition to the war both at home and abroad. That is the significance of the election that will take place on January 22.
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