Why Netanyahu Won't Attack Iran

The prime minister isn't a belligerent man, says an opponent. He knows what destruction an attack on Iran would lead to.

A senior member of the opposition explained this week why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wouldn't attack Iran: "Bibi likes to talk big but he isn't a man of belligerent action. I am not disparaging him. In both his terms [in office], he never started a war or launched showy operations or unnecessary adventures, aside from opening the Western Wall tunnel, and that's something he regrets to this day. Is he going to be all macho on Iran, of all things, when he knows how destructive this would be?

"But his main motivation not to attack is that he would likely lose his seat as a result. First off, the Iranian installations will not be destroyed. In the best case they will be damaged. The project will be delayed by at most two or three years. The Iranians will have extra motivation to complete it. The world will not be able to prevent them.

Bibi cartoon - Biderman - 10.2.12

"The price of oil will skyrocket. The Europeans will want to kill us; they won't back us. We will be completely alone. And we'll see just how the Americans will act, especially if President Barack Obama is re-elected in November.

"What will happen here? The whole region will go up in flames. Thousands of rockets will fall on Israel. In the initial days, hundreds of them will fall on Tel Aviv. Then we'll be in a war that goes on for months. The economy will crash. Tel Aviv will become a frontier town, and what will Netanyahu have to show for it? A quickly recovering Iranian nuclear project? Condemnations and boycotts? Terror attacks on Israeli targets abroad?

"After all, elections are due to be held in a year. In the wake of all that destruction, will he be re-elected? Will Likud win the people's trust again?"

The political corridors are not especially full of talk about the Iranian issue. If it is discussed, it's usually by way of black humor. The latest joke concerns the appointment of Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai as Israeli ambassador to China: If the minister has been preparing the home front for a big war for three years now and doesn't want to be here when it takes place, what are we supposed to conclude?

To what extent, if at all, is the Iranian issue likely to affect Netanyahu's decision to advance elections? On the one hand, if Netanyahu really is determined to attack but is afraid of the consequences, he has to hold elections first. Rumors say an attack would take place in the summer. On the other hand, this week Netanyahu told Orit Lavie-Nasiel on the Knesset Channel that he has no intention of shortening his term, and that elections won't be held anytime before the autumn.

On the third hand, if Netanyahu does intend to attack, he most certainly will want Defense Minister Ehud Barak at his side. If the attack comes before an election, Barak will still be at the Defense Ministry. But Barak's new Atzmaut faction is not expected to win enough votes to make it into the Knesset. Likud ministers have made it clear that Netanyahu cannot reserve Barak a place on the Likud list; the party's central committee wouldn't approve such a thing. The recent election for Likud chair strengthened the party's extreme right faction even further, and this faction can't stand Barak.

Netanyahu could name Barak defense minister again only as a non-political appointment, like he appointed Yaakov Neeman justice minister. This is not impossible, but it is not simple, either. Especially if Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, who had hoped to receive the defense portfolio following the 2009 elections, wins a place at the top of the next Likud list.

There are also people who think the Iranian issue will not have any influence on the timing of the next elections. Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias of Shas has told members of his faction that they should prepare for elections in October or November.

"Over the summer, Netanyahu is expected to give the cabinet the main points of the 2013 budget," said Atias. "This is going to be a cruel budget, with cuts and slashes. Not only will it not pass, Netanyahu won't want the public to know what is about to hit it. So he'll dissolve the Knesset in the summer, before the details of the budget are revealed. The elections will take place in the fall and the new government will handle the budget. This is the kind of budget that can be passed only early in a term."

That is exactly what MK Faina Kirshenbaum of Yisrael Beiteinu said a week ago. These are not self-fulfilling prophecies. These are action plans .

Center and left

A week ago, media celebrity Yair Lapid posted a video on Facebook in which he urged his supporters to each bring five of their friends into his "volunteer army," which he says now numbers 6,000 people. He delivered the following messages: 1. Change is needed (Shinui, Hebrew for "change," was the name of his father's now-defunct party ). 2. The country needs to be given back to our children. 3. Where is the money? 4. Oppose tycoons and bondholders' "haircuts."

Lapid appears a bit testy. "You know my opinions - I've written about this a thousand times," he scolded his virtual audience.

The video elicited harsh reactions. Lapid's devotees did not understand what he wanted from them. After all, during the social protest last summer he wrote: "God, preserve us from hatred of the wealthy." And how can they recruit 30,000 people based on slogans like: "The country cannot be held hostage"?

A few days later Lapid sent out a page of talking points "to help you explain our positions": against bloated government, against religious coercion, against sectoral budgets, against corruption, and against exploitation, and in favor of money for education, health, housing, public security, welfare and more.

He backs school trips to Hebron and says Jerusalem "belongs only to the Jewish people." You'd expect more detail from someone who hopes to become a senior minister in the next government, heading a party with "15 to 20 Knesset seats."

If he opposes any concession on Jerusalem, what kind of centrist is he exactly? And what does former prime minister Ehud Olmert, an adviser to Lapid, have to say about this? Lapid has not granted any interviews to journalists. He has not yet answered probing questions. He has not yet met the real world. Before he goes through that baptism by fire, we will not know what he is really worth.

Lapid, MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labor ) and MKs Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz (Kadima ) all say their parties are centrist. Once Kadima chooses its leader, the battle will begin for the "center," a bottomless reservoir of voters. But there are also voters on the left, and they have only one option: Meretz, which this week elected MK Zahava Gal-On as its leader.

Gal-On is not a conformist. She is proud to be a leftist. Under her leadership, Meretz can be expected to sharpen its positions. She resembles Shulamit Aloni of the 1990s, when she was education minister in Yitzhak Rabin's government. It is hard to imagine a coalition in the near future that would include Meretz. In the last election, it was the brilliant idea of Tzipi Livni and Haim Ramon to boil down the essence of the contest to the slogan "Tzipi or Bibi," which sent tens of thousands of left-wing voters running to the polling stations, believing a vote for Livni would save the country from Netanyahu. Not only did they not save the country, they also got right-leaning Kadima members Otniel Schneller and Yulia Shamalov Berkovich into the Knesset, and almost wiped Meretz off the map. The party won a paltry three seats.

In 1992, in the elections that brought Yitzhak Rabin to power, Meretz won 12 seats, its record. Since then, because of complex social, political and demographic reasons, it has lost strength with every election. If this trend is anything to go by, Meretz is likely to be wiped out altogether in the next elections. Gal-On does not deserve to be the person who signs Meretz's death certificate.

No thanks to the sectors

The Labor Party's Knesset list has always included slots for representatives of the Arab sector, the Druze sector, the kibbutzim and the moshavim. They are chosen by Labor voters from those sectors, rather than by party members at large. Sectoral representatives only need a few thousand votes to get a realistic place on the Knesset list.

Other candidates, those who do not represent limited sectors, must go through the national primaries and win 10 times more votes for such slots. Currently, the sectoral candidates get preferential treatment, but the party doesn't have even a single Knesset seat that can be attributed to their electoral power. The absurdity peaked when Ehud Barak and four colleagues walked out of Labor a year ago and established a new faction, Atzmaut. Barak took with him Shalom Simhon from the moshavim and Orit Noked from the United Kibbutz Movement. They took their seats and party funding with them.

This week, thanks to Vilnai's resignation, Shakib Shanan, a political hack from the Druze sector, was slated to enter the Knesset. The Knesset regulations, which were changed out of the blue about two years ago, allow someone who belongs to a party that has split to choose which he wants to join. Shanan chose Atzmaut.

This is political suicide. In the Labor Party, he had an excellent chance of getting into the next Knesset as well. "He didn't ask for anything and he wasn't promised anything. He admires and respects Ehud," say associates of the defense minister about Shanan's choice.

Yachimovich has to decide whether to try to end this system of reserving slots for sectoral candidates. Such a move would constitute an earthquake for the party. Her persona returned this week to the satirical television show "Wonderful Country" in the form of the opinionated "Helley," facing caricatures of Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz, who were depicted as not having positions. Let's see her butt heads with the power groups in her own party.