Israeli Elections Likely to Postpone Any Deliberations on Iran Strike

Senior Haaretz analyst Amos Harel says that, while Netanyahu could opt to launch a unilateral strike on Iran in the coming months, the chances of him doing so with elections looming both in Israel and the U.S. seem slim.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

While this week saw the date set for the next elections, the media were still following up on last weekend's big headline: former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin's unprecedented attack on the prime minister and defense minister.

Something in Diskin's monotonous tone projects no-nonsense credibility. When he opens his mouth, people take him seriously. He followed Ami Ayalon and Avi Dichter as head of the domestic security service; after their successful terms, both men launched political careers. Under them, journalists got used to attributing statements in briefings to "senior security officials," so they were surprised when Diskin saw no reason to conceal his identity. Anything he told them was on the record and attributable.

Benjamin Netanyahu during a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. Jan. 22, 2012.Credit: Emil Salman

This was also Diskin's approach at his talk in Kfar Sava last month, where in only four minutes he bombarded Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak with the following accusations: They are messianic, they are rich (and, by implication, spoiled and alienated from the masses ), and they can't be trusted to lead Israel as it faces the Iranian nuclear threat.

A rather shaky amateur cameraman documented the scene; you can see a couple and their baby in a stroller ambling behind the speaker, not to mention the sunglasses hanging from Diskin's collar. The props enhance the authenticity: Here, as everywhere else, the Shin Bet chief looks credible. Many politicians and defense officials say the same thing about his performance: First, they find Diskin's style insufferable; second, they say he was speaking the truth.

Diskin's attack damaged Netanyahu in two ways. It could cost the prime minister at the ballot box, because Diskin's allegations strike at Bibi's image as a tough guy who takes state security very seriously and is cautious about the peace process. (Though nothing in the opinion polls shows that Netanyahu will have trouble getting reelected. ) And the accusations undermine the legitimacy of Netanyahu's thinking and maneuvers on the Iran issue.

Former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan.Credit: Alon Ron

When former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Diskin publicly challenge Netanyahu and Barak, and former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi does the same thing in "private talks" - people notice. These security gurus are casting doubt on the logic, and even the honesty, of Netanyahu and Barak's motives. The criticism is turning an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities into a potential political liability. It's as if everything is being put on record with an eye to the state commission that will be set up after a conflict with the Islamic Republic.

The sides to the Dagan-Diskin-Ashkenazi triangle aren't equal in length. The shortest distance and tightest bonds are between Dagan and Diskin; the latter came to the Shin Bet from the Mossad, where he worked harmoniously under the former. Some reports suggest that Dagan hoped Diskin would succeed him at the Mossad. Netanyahu agreed, offered the post to Diskin but had second thoughts at the last moment. So he appointed Tamir Pardo.

What links Diskin and Dagan to Ashkenazi is deep distrust of Netanyahu and Barak. Dagan, who finished his term in January 2011, was the first to generate a public debate on the Iranian threat. Dagan opened his mouth the day he left office; Diskin had to wait a year before joining the fray.

Diskin also appears to have another motive. For a while now, Dagan has been considered "Mr. Iran": His main objective appears to be preventing an Israeli strike against Iran without coordination with the United States. In Diskin's case, however, the attacks seem to be coordinated with colleagues who indirectly are supporting another security aficionado, opposition leader Shaul Mofaz.

Drafting Haredim

For the time being, Ashkenazi is sticking to topics with broad public consensus, such as the need to draft ultra-Orthodox men. Ashkenazi and Col. Erez Weiner (Ashkenazi's assistant when he was chief of staff ) are still fighting State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss' report on the notorious Harpaz document, an attempt to influence the selection of the next chief of staff. Weiner petitioned the High Court of Justice, asking for all testimony that led to Lindenstrauss' conclusions, which are highly critical Weiner and Ashkenazi.

If the court grants Weiner's request in a hearing on Monday, a final report on the Harpaz document won't come out until long after Lindenstrauss steps down in July. Meanwhile, until the Harpaz imbroglio is resolved, Ashkenazi is vulnerable, so he's apparently being cautious about getting deeply involved in the Iranian issue.

The prevailing political wisdom holds that early elections all but rule out an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities before the fall. This speculation is based on simple logic: From May to September every politician in the country will be busy campaigning. An attack would be viewed as a political ruse and will likely lower Netanyahu's standing. A failed attack could ruin his chances at the ballot box. Israel also needs to let some time pass so the stepped-up international sanctions against Iran can be assessed.

Also, until November 6, there's a strong disincentive to attack; such a move would complicate U.S. President Barack Obama's reelection campaign (and thus incur his wrath ). By then, clouds will cover Qom and other Iranian nuclear sites until spring 2013. All these factors point to a deferral of any unilateral attack by Israel.

This analysis seems acceptable to the White House, though its proponents acknowledge there's always a qualifier: the possibility that Netanyahu will risk the political fallout, ignore Washington's warnings and launch a strike. Netanyahu might view the two months ahead of the U.S. elections as a window when Israel can create facts in the Iranian stand-off - but, again, any move by Netanyahu would greatly risk his relations with Obama.

It's often hard to distinguish between a statesman and a politician. In a democracy, leaders have to keep in mind their prospects at the polls. When Ariel Sharon decided to pull out of the Gaza Strip, he was thinking about elections (and also police investigations into his family ). During the Second Lebanon War, when Ehud Olmert held a meeting to consider a final offensive to the Litani River, he brought his pollster along. (Participants at that meeting deny the issue of opinion polling came up directly. )

Similarly, the Olmert-Barak-Livni government launched the Gaza offensive in the winter of 2008-9, on the eve of elections and at the start of the Obama administration. So electoral issues were part of the thinking. Plus, opinion polls and ballot boxes weren't entirely divorced from Netanyahu's decision to free captured soldier Gilad Shalit in a prisoner-exchange deal after a summer of social protests.

Dennis Ross, a former Obama adviser with experience on Iran, told CNN this week that the Americans are aware of Israel's policy clash regarding Tehran. He cited Netanyahu's statement that a decision on whether to attack would be reached within months.

The Israeli and American positions are coordinated with one exception, Ross said. From Jerusalem's standpoint, protracted diplomacy could take the military option off the table, but Israel has no assurance that anyone else, particularly the United States, will take action if Iran ramps up its nuclear efforts. Asked whether Israel has a credible military option against the nuclear facilities, Ross replied that in 2007 the Iranians had achieved the ability to develop a bomb on their own.

Nobody can destroy the Iranians' nuclear program in an irrevocable way, Ross said. Both the Americans and the Israelis have the ability to delay the program, especially the Americans, he added: An Israeli attack could slow it down by two years, an American attack by three.

It's hard to resist an impolitic thought in this context: If elections are important enough to delay an attack, maybe the Iran threat isn't as immediate as Netanyahu and Barak are indicating.

Barak heads the Atzmaut faction, which would probably not win a single seat in parliament if elections were held today. On Tuesday, he answered questions on his Facebook page. Not surprisingly, people asked about Iran.

"The executive branch continues to operate as usual, so elections won't influence government professionals' thinking on the Iranian issue," Barak said. "People tell us: Draw a line in the sand, and if [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei orders his people to produce nuclear weapons, there will be time, a window, to take action. I have to say we see that the Iranians are acting in a systematic way to ensure that there's no such window for action."

Lapid's clean hands

More than the Iranian issue, the September elections are likely to revolve around the drafting of ultra-Orthodox men into the Israel Defense Forces. This week, political newcomer Yair Lapid unveiled his plan on this issue, which his rivals duly blasted.

Lapid at least enters this discussion with clean hands. Though Netanyahu and Barak are competing to see who can make the most promises about equal conscription terms for all Israelis, they both planned until recently to extend the Tal Law awarding deferrals to the Haredim. (Netanyahu planned to extend the deferrals another five years, Barak one. )

Their rival, Mofaz, made sure to avoid statements about equal conscription terms for the IDF; he finally took a position when he realized the public mood was ripe. Lapid developed his plan with the help of journalist Ofer Shelah and Gen. (res. ) Elazar Stern, who headed the IDF's Manpower Directorate. The proposal to give 18-year-old Haredi males a five-year deferral, until a more egalitarian draft was put together, sparked criticism.

But Lapid's maneuver reveals the honesty of his intentions. He realized he would be attacked for catering to the Haredim; still, he backed a five-year deferral because his experts said this would give the IDF time to integrate the ultra-Orthodox.

Other aspects of Lapid's plan seem supported by common sense. For instance, he proposes that the length of mandatory IDF service be reduced gradually. Instead of Barak's clearly implausible proposal to pay each soldier a minimum wage, Lapid wants to target high-level soldiers - professional roles that require longer terms of service.

All told, it appears the main problem with Lapid's proposal is the freezing of the Haredi issue for five years. Israel has managed to complete large national projects in much less than five years. Awarded a five-year deferral, most young Haredi men would simply stop thinking about IDF service as a viable scenario. After five years, it would be hard to revive discussions about equality in conscription policy. So applying Lapid plan's might actually destroy its main objective.

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