April 3, 2009
Number 04/09 #09
As readers will be aware, Israel’s new government was sworn in on Tuesday. The complete list of personnel in the new government is here. The policy guidelines of the new government are here. The swearing in speech of new Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is here. The farewell speech of outgoing Prime Minister Olmert is here.
First up, the Jerusalem Post editorialises both about the bloated size of the new cabinet – 30 ministers and seven deputy ministers – and the need to move forward on a number of fronts despite the problematic size created by coalition politics. The paper praises a number of new appointments, including new finance minister Yuval Steinitz and some of the security appointments, but points out that the purpose of the new government must be to govern, despite a “crisis-filled agenda.” For the paper’s take on the new government, CLICK HERE. Also, top Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis discusses the problems in the Israeli political system that led to the bloated cabinet. And a former chief of staff to an Israeli prime minister offers advice to Netanyahu on handling his unwieldy cabinet.
Next up, the British-Israel Communication and Research centre (BICOM) offers a useful primer on how the election aftermath led to the governing coalition Israeli now has. It attempts to explain Labor’s decision to join Netanyahu’s government and analyses the new government’s platform. Finally, it offers some good discussion of the sources of tension likely to beset the new government – including not only peace negotiations, but also religious-secular relations and economics. For this useful analysis, CLICK HERE. Also looking at the agenda the new government must deal with is top Israeli analyst Dr. Eran Lerman, of the American Jewish Committee.
Finally, American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg managed to get an interview with Netanyahu just prior to his swearing in which he reveals some indications of his foreign policy priorities in government. Most of the discussion revolves around the two issues of most interest to outside observers of Israeli foreign policy – the Iranian nuclear program and the progress with the Palestinians. Despite the title placed on the interview by the Atlantic, Netanyahu, while setting out strongly the case that Iran must not be allowed to go nuclear, makes it clear he will allow time for US President Obama’s policy of engagement and/or sanctions to work, and will continue to pursue peace with the Palestinians regardless of what happens on the Iranian front. For the full piece, CLICK HERE. Arguing that Netanyahu and Barak can likely cooperate on Iran is Israeli author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi. More details on Netanyahu’s approach to a Palestinian state comes from Herb Keinon of the Jerusalem Post.
Readers may also be interested in:
- As readers will no doubt have read, new Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman created controversy with his first speech in the job by appearing to renounce Israel’s commitment to the Annapolis process initiated in 2007 – though he did stress that Israel remains committed to the “roadmap for peace”. The full text of the speech in question is here.
- Since then, however, Lieberman has re-affirmed that Israel is ready to move for peace together with the Palestinians. His deputy, Danny Ayalon, has stated that Israel remains committed to a two-state solution in the context of the roadmap.
- The Jerusalem Post editorialises about Lieberman’s statements, arguing that, while he was undiplomatic Lieberman is correct that Annapolis is essentially dead because of the Palestinian rejection of Israel’s best offer under Olmert.
- American Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes praises what Lieberman had to say. However, Israeli pundit Eitan Haber is critical.
- More on the Lieberman factor in the new government from American academic Robert Freedman.
- A terrorist attack with an axe in the West Bank left one 13-year-old dead and a 7-year-old badly wounded. An account of the attack is here. Hamas praised this act of “resistance”.
THE JERUSALEM POST, Mar. 31, 2009
Israel has a new government, the most bloated in its history, with 30 ministers and seven deputy ministers.
It’s appalling. Selfish. And to be expected.
• Blame the political system, which makes it impossible to form a government without exchanging patronage for parliamentary support. No political party ever formed a government without horse-trading; and now the Likud has been forced to throw in paddocks, stables and hayricks to garner the support of roughly 70 of the 120 Knesset members.
Did anyone think Israel Beiteinu, Shas, Labor, United Torah Judaism and Habayit Hayehudi would come cheap? Or that the hurt egos of Likud MKs excluded from the most prestigious ministries wouldn’t have to be soothed?
• Blame the voters, who should have thrown their support behind one of the three or four major parties for the Knesset, but instead sent 12 parties to the legislature – most of whom place their parochial needs above the collective good.
• Save some blame, too, for Kadima leader Tzipi Livni. Had she joined Binyamin Netanyahu’s government together with Avigdor Lieberman, a relatively lean cabinet able to embark on urgently needed electoral reform could have emerged. Instead, Livni claimed – quite disingenuously – that “policy differences” with Netanyahu over how best to negotiate with the Palestinians would not allow her to join.
Yet what actually sent her to the opposition was his refusal to consent to a rotation government.
THE SIZE of the government may make it hard for Knesset committees to function, but it shouldn’t have a deleterious impact on governmental decision-making. That’s because the mega-cabinet, which will meet Sundays, is not where decisions will be made.
The premier must appoint a security cabinet, whose membership is determined by law. Netanyahu will also create an “inner cabinet” to debate a range of domestic and international issues. It will include Lieberman, Dan Meridor, Moshe Ya’alon, Bennie Begin, Silvan Shalom, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and Eli Yishai. But the most sensitive decisions will be made by Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.
How efficiently the government works will depend not on the size of the cabinet, but on how well key staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office coordinate the apparatus of power and manage the flow of decision-making up the chain of command.
ISRAEL now has a semblance of a “unity government” and can move forward. Indeed, there are several laudable cabinet appointments.
Though Netanyahu will head his own economic team, Yuval Steinitz will be his man at the Treasury. Steinitz has no particular expertise in economics, but sufficient brainpower to excel in a job where personal loyalty to the premier can help bring coherence to government policy.
The ministry has an image of being dominated by supercilious civil servants who think they should set the agenda. On the other hand, with tax revenues dramatically down, it may fall to Steinitz to tell the coalition partners that not all of his boss’s promises can be kept. The presence of Shas’s Yitzhak Cohen as deputy finance minister is, however, worrisome. His being there will cost taxpayers money.
At a time of unprecedented economic dislocation, Israelis are less interested in economic dogma than in job and wage security.
LET’S hope the brainpower of Meridor (security services), Ya’alon (strategic affairs), Yaakov Neeman (Justice) and Begin, among others, will fully be utilized.
With our new premier intent on reversing the downward spiral in our education system, Netanyahu loyalist Gideon Sa’ar takes the education portfolio. Consummate professional Matan Vilna’i will stay on as deputy defense minister, and that’s comforting.
Yuli Edelstein can contribute as hasbara minister – not by seeking to create an empire, but by working with the premier’s new communications director, Ron Dermer, to maximize existing public diplomacy resources while avoiding ruffling bureaucratic feathers.
Of course, the object of this exercise is not to form a government, but to govern. Together with Barak, whose presence bolsters Israel’s case in the international arena, Netanyahu will grapple with a crisis-filled agenda that includes Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Hamas’s ascendency among the Palestinians, and a wobbly economy.
We can’t promise Netanyahu a honeymoon. But we’d advise a good night’s sleep – there’s lots to be done.
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March 30, 2009
- The elections and subsequent coalition negotiations have produced a broad coalition bringing together centre-left, centre-right and right-wing forces, but significant contradictions between the partners remain.
- Bringing Labour into the government represents a significant achievement for Netanyahu, who wished to avoid the scenario of a narrow right-wing and religious coalition. Labour chose to join because of the need for national unity at a crucial strategic moment for Israel, because of the considerable concessions Netanyahu made to bring it in, and because of Labour’s historic tendency to see itself as a party of the establishment and of national leadership. There had long been talk of a Likud-Labour plan to come together in government and force out Kadima.
- On the diplomatic process, three of the main partners – Labour, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas – have clearly differing positions. The formula reached in the government guidelines of committing to previous agreements signed by Israel in the peace process will be sufficient for all parties to sign. But it is possible to conceive of many situations in which sharply differing outlooks will cause friction. In other areas, including religious-secular relations and economic matters, there are also clear fault-lines among the members of the new coalition.
The elections for the eighteenth Knesset produced an anomalous situation. Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni, emerged as the largest single party, winning 28 seats. Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud, which had been expected to emerge victorious, came in second with 27 seats. In previous elections, the leader of the largest party had always been the first to be invited by the president to form a government. On this occasion, however, the larger right-wing bloc achieved a combined total of more than 60 seats in the 120 member Knesset, while the left wing bloc did not. For this reason, Netanyahu was offered the chance to form a government.
After a difficult and protracted negotiation process, the new Israeli government will include Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our Home) (15), Labour (13), the Sephardi religious Shas (11) and the national religious Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) (3). When added to the Likud’s 27 seats, this constitutes a 69 seat Knesset majority. This analysis will look at the key elements of the new government platform, and how stable the emerging coalition is likely to be.
Initial coalition negotiations
The first question in the coalition building process was whether Netanyahu would succeed in bringing in Kadima in. The Likud leader made clear his interest in building as broad a coalition as possible. With potential confrontation with Iran looming, there is an obvious need for the greatest level of unity among political forces. Also, if a narrow right-wing government were to be formed, this raised the unappealing prospect for Netanyahu of being caught between rightist coalition partners and a US Administration committed to Israeli concessions in the peace process. The key issues which prevented Kadima’s entry were a failure to agree on the rotation of the prime ministership between Netanyahu and Livni, and a failure to reach agreement over the issue of the government’s commitment to a two-state solution.
In the course of the first month’s negotiations, Netanyahu succeeded in obtaining a firm commitment to join the government from one party only – the Yisrael Beiteinu list led by former Likud Director-General Avigdor Lieberman. The agreement they reached on March 17 promised to make Lieberman foreign minister, and grant Yisrael Beiteinu an additional four ministerial portfolios – Public Security, Immigrant Absorption, Tourism and National Infrastructure.
Other than pledging to bring down Hamas rule in Gaza, the agreement does not commit the government to other aspects of Yisrael Beiteinu’s program. Specifically, the agreement contains no reference to Lieberman’s controversial ‘no loyalty – no citizenship’ proposal. Nevertheless, Netanyahu has committed to revoking social services and pension rights of any individual convicted of espionage or believed to be a terror operative.[i]
However, the agreement does address Yisrael Beiteinu’s secularization program. The agreement will establish a committee to formulate a proposal for legislation on civil marriage. The agreement also commits the government to loosen regulations on conversion to Judaism, by allowing the heads of local rabbinical authorities to regulate conversions in their own locality. These issues are important to Yisrael Beitenu’s Russian immigrant support base, many of whom face difficulties because they are not recognized as Jewish by Rabbinic authorities.
The agreement with Yisrael Beiteinu was the first firm achievement of the coalition negotiations. On March 23, the Ultra-Orthodox Shas party also committed to joining the coalition, in return for the Housing and Construction and Religious Services ministries and an additional minister without portfolio. They also reportedly received commitments from Netanyahu to put extra cash into child-welfare payments, an important issue for Shas voters.
Agreement with Labour
Though at this point, reaching his deadline to present his government, Netanyahu had the option of trying to make up a majority by bringing in the smaller right wing and religious parties, instead he asked for and was granted a two week extension. The extension produced the unexpected result of a crucial agreement between Likud and Labour. The agreement was met with opposition from within Labour, but the party’s central committee approved it. Labour’s entry into the government transforms the nature of the emerging coalition. From a rightist coalition in which the Likud would have formed the leftward edge, Netanyahu will now lead a coalition in which Likud occupies the centre ground – a far preferable situation for the leader.
However, Labour leader Ehud Barak, aware of Netanyahu’s strong desire to bring Labour in, has carved out an impressive deal for his party. Histadrut leader Ofer Eini played a crucial role behind the scenes in ensuring internal Labour support for the agreement. The agreement itself reflects the involvement of the Histadrut (Trade Unions) head and his concerns. Thus, all economic decisions will first be brought for debate at a round table forum that will be attended by representatives of the government, the Histadrut and the Manufacturers Association. In addition, unemployment benefits and old age allowances will be increased.[ii] The agreement with Labour also promises the party four ministerial portfolios – Defence, Industry and Trade, Agriculture and Social Affairs. In addition, the party will receive two deputy ministerships and the chairmanship of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee for one-third of the coalition’s term. In terms of foreign policy stances, the Defence Minister will be a member of the inner security cabinet and the government will be committed to all previous signed agreements in the peace process.
The decision by Labour to join the government gave the coalition a Knesset majority of 66. Then, on March 25, the national religious Habayit Hayehudi joined the coalition, adding a further three MKs.
Why did Labour choose to join the coalition?
There was fierce debate within Labour over joining the coalition. On the one hand, some Labour activists believe that the party should spend a period in opposition, in which it could develop a clear identity as a social-democratic party, standing for an alternative socio-economic vision relevant to the current difficult economic period. Clearly, this argument was not sufficient to persuade the Labour’s Central Committee.
A number of factors should be borne in mind in explaining Labour’s decision. Firstly, Labour leader Ehud Barak and those around him believe that Israel is currently in a situation of strategic vulnerability, given the advancement of the Iranian nuclear program. In such a situation, a broad coalition is of national importance. Secondly, related to this issue is the Israeli Labour Party’s long-standing self-image as a party of the establishment, for whom involvement in decision-making and national responsibilities are of cardinal importance. The Israeli Labour Party developed as a party of government, holding uninterrupted power in the period 1948-77. Because of this core identity in the party, arguments relating to national responsibility will always have particular purchase. Thirdly, there are hopes in Labour that their centrist rivals Kadima will not survive a period out of government. Many in Labour believe that Kadima is an improvised party, lacking a clear direction, that will wither in opposition. Barak was in consultation with Netanyahu even before the elections about forming a coalition that would leave Kadima out in the cold. Fourthly, Labour’s decision suggests that the party’s leadership believe that PM-designate Netanyahu stands for a centrist position with which they can work in the present climate. It is also based on a calculation that Avigdor Lieberman is likely to be more pragmatic in government than his fierce rhetoric would suggest. The coalition agreement between Labour and Likud includes acceptance of all prior agreements in the peace process. This presumably includes the Roadmap, which sets out steps towards the creation of a Palestinian state.[iii]
The government’s platform and potential sources of friction
While Netanyahu has succeeded in building a workable coalition, there are clear obstacles ahead in terms of keeping the coalition together. On the diplomatic process, three of the main partners – Labour, Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas – have differing positions. The formula of committing to previous agreements in the government guidelines will be sufficient for all parties to sign. But it is possible to conceive of many situations in which the sharply differing outlooks of Labour on the one side and Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu on the other will cause friction. This will be the case particularly if the US Administration takes a pro-active approach on the process, exerting pressure on Israel to make concessions in the peace process.
A second potential source of division in the new Cabinet will be on religious-secular matters. Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas differ sharply on the role of religion in public life in Israel, with the former taking a firmly secular stance.
A third element of friction may be over economic policy. Netanyahu’s desire to keep a tight hold of the Finance Ministry, and to keep a tight reign on spending, may cause friction with Labour or with smaller coalition partners seeking funding for the sectoral or social interests that they represent.
A fourth element which may lead to discontent in the new coalition is the anger within the Likud itself at the high price paid by Netanyahu in ensuring the support of Labour and Yisrael Beiteinu. This has resulted in a dearth of remaining Cabinet positions to be offered to senior Likud figures. Former Finance Minister Silvan Shalom, who controls a powerful bloc within the Likud, is understood to be furious at the failure to offer him a senior post. Shalom is insisting on the finance ministry and the deputy prime ministership. Ten Likud MKs are understood to have expected to be awarded ministerial portfolios and some are now certain to be disappointed. Despite the fact that with 30 ministers, this will be one of the largest Cabinets in Israel’s history, only six ministerial portfolios now remain to be allocated.[iv] There is a distinct possibility of discontented Likud MKs making life difficult for Netanyahu in the Knesset and Cabinet further down the line.[v]
Yesterday’s editorial in the Hebrew language daily Maariv newspaper noted that, “The nation wanted the centre, and the nation received the centre.” The emerging guidelines of the new government will accurately reflect the prevailing view among the Israeli centre ground, by defining a cautious yet pragmatic attitude to the diplomatic process, and a focus on the Iranian danger. The special circumstances in which Labour joined the coalition mean that the social democratic concerns of Histadrut leader Ofer Eini and his followers within Labour will have considerable influence in the new coalition.
The paradox, of course, is that a government of the centre will not include Israel’s self-proclaimed party of the centre, the Kadima party. Rather, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni will head the opposition. Livni’s position as Kadima leader seems secure thanks to her success in delivering the largest number of Knesset seats to her party, and there seems little prospect of a split in the near future.
The elections and subsequent coalition negotiations have thus produced a broad coalition bringing together centre-left, centre-right and right-wing forces. Potential cracks which have been smoothed over by vague wording in the government guidelines may surface as the new coalition tries to govern. Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s success in bringing Labour into the coalition avoids the scenario he sought desperately to avoid, of a narrow, right-wing and religious coalition.
[i] Sadie Goldman, “Netanyahu stuck between backroom deals,” Israel Policy Forum, March 19. http://www.israelpolicyforum.org
[ii] Mazal Mualem, “Likud, Barak draft economic plan as part of coalition deal,” Haaretz, March 24. http://www.haaretz.com
[iii] Jeffrey Heller, “Netanyahu enlists Labour Party into Israeli governing coalition,” Reuters, March 24. http://www.haaretz.com
[iv] Gil Hoffman, “The expected Netanyahu Cabinet,” Jerusalem Post, March 30. http://www.jpost.com
[v] Gil Hoffman, “Shalom supporters in Likud to declare war on Netanyahu,” Jerusalem Post, March 30. http://www.jpost.com
by Jeffrey Goldberg
The Atlantic, March 31, 2009
The message from Israel’s new prime minister is stark: if the Obama administration doesn’t prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, Israel may be forced to attack.
In an interview conducted shortly before he was sworn in today as prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu laid down a challenge for Barack Obama. The American president, he said, must stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons—and quickly—or an imperiled Israel may be forced to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities itself.
“The Obama presidency has two great missions: fixing the economy, and preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu told me. He said the Iranian nuclear challenge represents a “hinge of history” and added that “Western civilization” will have failed if Iran is allowed to develop nuclear weapons.
In unusually blunt language, Netanyahu said of the Iranian leadership, “You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran.”
History teaches Jews that threats against their collective existence should be taken seriously, and, if possible, preempted, he suggested. In recent years, the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has regularly called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” and the supreme Iranian leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, this month called Israel a “cancerous tumor.”
But Netanyahu also said that Iran threatens many other countries apart from Israel, and so his mission over the next several months is to convince the world of the broad danger posed by Iran. One of his chief security advisers, Moshe Ya’alon, told me that a nuclear Iran could mean the end of American influence in the Middle East. “This is an existential threat for Israel, but it will be a blow for American interests, especially on the energy front. Who will dominate the oil in the region—Washington or Tehran?”
Netanyahu said he would support President Obama’s decision to engage Iran, so long as negotiations brought about a quick end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “How you achieve this goal is less important than achieving it,” he said, but he added that he was skeptical that Iran would respond positively to Obama’s appeals. In an hour-long conversation, held in the Knesset, Netanyahu tempered his aggressive rhetoric with an acknowledgement that nonmilitary pressure could yet work. “I think the Iranian economy is very weak, which makes Iran susceptible to sanctions that can be ratcheted up by a variety of means.” When I suggested that this statement contradicted his assertion that Iran, by its fanatic nature, is immune to pressure, Netanyahu smiled thinly and said, “Iran is a composite leadership, but in that composite leadership there are elements of wide-eyed fanaticism that do not exist right now in any other would-be nuclear power in the world. That’s what makes them so dangerous.”
He went on, “Since the dawn of the nuclear age, we have not had a fanatic regime that might put its zealotry above its self-interest. People say that they’ll behave like any other nuclear power. Can you take the risk? Can you assume that?”
Netanyahu offered Iran’s behavior during its eight-year war with Iraq as proof of Tehran’s penchant for irrational behavior. Iran “wasted over a million lives without batting an eyelash … It didn’t sear a terrible wound into the Iranian consciousness. It wasn’t Britain after World War I, lapsing into pacifism because of the great tragedy of a loss of a generation. You see nothing of the kind.”
He continued: “You see a country that glorifies blood and death, including its own self-immolation.” I asked Netanyahu if he believed Iran would risk its own nuclear annihilation at the hands of Israel or America. “I’m not going to get into that,” he said.
Neither Netanyahu nor his principal military advisers would suggest a deadline for American progress on the Iran nuclear program, though one aide said pointedly that Israeli time lines are now drawn in months, “not years.” These same military advisers told me that they believe Iran’s defenses remain penetrable, and that Israel would not necessarily need American approval to launch an attack. “The problem is not military capability, the problem is whether you have the stomach, the political will, to take action,” one of his advisers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me.
Both Israeli and American intelligence officials agree that Iran is moving forward in developing a nuclear-weapons capability. The chief of Israeli military intelligence, Major General Amos Yadlin, said earlier this month that Iran has already “crossed the technological threshold,” and that nuclear military capability could soon be a fact: “Iran is continuing to amass hundreds of kilograms of low-enriched uranium, and it hopes to exploit the dialogue with the West and Washington to advance toward the production of an atomic bomb.”
American officials argue that Iran has not crossed the “technological threshold”; the director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, said recently that Israel and the U.S. are working with the same set of facts, but are interpreting it differently. “The Israelis are far more concerned about it, and they take more of a worst-case approach to these things from their point of view,” he said. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Michael Mullen, recently warned that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would undermine stability in the Middle East and endanger the lives of Americans in the Persian Gulf.
The Obama administration agrees with Israel that Iran’s nuclear program is a threat to Middle East stability, but it also wants Israel to focus on the Palestinian question. Netanyahu, for his part, promises to move forward on negotiations with the Palestinians, but he made it clear in our conversation that he believes a comprehensive peace will be difficult to achieve if Iran continues to threaten Israel, and he cited Iran’s sponsorship of such Islamist groups as Hezbollah and Hamas as a stumbling block.
Ya’alon, a former army chief of staff who is slated to serve as Netanyahu’s minister for strategic threats, dismissed the possibility of a revitalized peace process, telling me that “jihadists” interpret compromise as weakness. He cited the reaction to Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza four years ago. “The mistake of disengagement from Gaza was that we thought like Westerners, that compromise would defuse a problem—but it just encouraged the problem,” he said. “The jihadists saw withdrawal as a defeat of the West … Now, what do you signal to them if you are ready to divide Jerusalem, or if you’re ready to withdraw to the 1967 lines? In this kind of conflict, your ability to stand and be determined is more important than your firepower.”
American administration sources tell me that President Obama won’t shy from pressuring Netanyahu on the Palestinian issue during his first visit to Washington as prime minister, which is scheduled for early May. But Netanyahu suggested that he and Obama already see eye-to-eye on such crucial issues as the threat posed by Hamas. “The Obama administration has recently said that Hamas has to first recognize Israel and cease the support of terror. That’s a very good definition. It says you have to cease being Hamas.”
When I noted that many in Washington doubt his commitment to curtailing Jewish settlement on the West Bank, he said, in reference to his previous term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, “I can only point to what I did as prime minister in the first round. I certainly didn’t build new settlements.”
Netanyahu will manage Israel’s relationship with Washington personally—his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, of the anti-Arab Israel Beiteinu party, is deeply unpopular in Washington—and I asked him if he could foresee agreeing on a “grand bargain” with Obama, in which he would move forward on talks with the Palestinians in exchange for a robust American response to Iran’s nuclear program. He said: “We intend to move on the Palestinian track independent of what happens with Iran, and I hope the U.S. moves to stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons regardless of what happens on the Palestinian track.”
In our conversation, Netanyahu gave his fullest public explication yet of why he believes President Obama must consider Iran’s nuclear ambitions to be his preeminent overseas challenge. “Why is this a hinge of history? Several bad results would emanate from this single development. First, Iran’s militant proxies would be able to fire rockets and engage in other terror activities while enjoying a nuclear umbrella. This raises the stakes of any confrontation that they’d force on Israel. Instead of being a local event, however painful, it becomes a global one. Second, this development would embolden Islamic militants far and wide, on many continents, who would believe that this is a providential sign, that this fanaticism is on the ultimate road to triumph.
“Third, they would be able to pose a real and credible threat to the supply of oil, to the overwhelming part of the world’s oil supply. Fourth, they may threaten to use these weapons or to give them to terrorist proxies of their own, or fabricate terror proxies. Finally, you’d create a great sea change in the balance of power in our area—nearly all the Arab regimes are dead-set opposed to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. They fervently hope, even if they don’t say it, that the U.S. will act to prevent this, that it will use its political, economic, and, if necessary, military power to prevent this from happening.”
If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, Netanyahu asserted, Washington’s Arab allies would drift into Iran’s orbit. “The only way I can explain what will happen to such regimes is to give you an example from the past of what happened to one staunch ally of the United States, and a great champion of peace, when another aggressive power loomed large. I’m referring to the late King Hussein [of Jordan] … who was an unequalled champion of peace. The same King Hussein in many ways subordinated his country to Saddam Hussein when Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990. Saddam seemed all-powerful, unchallenged by the United States, and until the U.S. extracted Kuwait from Saddam’s gullet, King Hussein was very much in Iraq’s orbit. The minute that changed, the minute Saddam was defeated, King Hussein came back to the Western camp.”
One of Iran’s goals, Netanyahu said, is to convince the moderate Arab countries not to enter peace treaties with Israel. Finally, he said, several countries in Iran’s neighborhood might try to develop nuclear weapons of their own. “Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons could spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The Middle East is incendiary enough, but with a nuclear arms race it will become a tinderbox,” he said.
Few in Netanyahu’s inner circle believe that Iran has any short-term plans to drop a nuclear weapon on Tel Aviv, should it find a means to deliver it. The first-stage Iranian goal, in the understanding of Netanyahu and his advisers, is to frighten Israel’s most talented citizens into leaving their country. “The idea is to keep attacking the Israelis on a daily basis, to weaken the willingness of the Jewish people to hold on to their homeland,” Moshe Ya’alon said. “The idea is to make a place that is supposed to be a safe haven for Jews unattractive for them. They are waging a war of attrition.”
The Israeli threat to strike Iran militarily if the West fails to stop the nuclear program may, of course, be a tremendous bluff. After all, such threats may just be aimed at motivating President Obama and others to grapple urgently with the problem. But Netanyahu and his advisers seem to believe sincerely that Israel would have difficulty surviving in a Middle East dominated by a nuclear Iran. And they are men predisposed to action; many, like Netanyahu, are former commandos.
As I waited in the Knesset cafeteria to see Netanyahu, I opened a book he edited of his late brother’s letters. Yoni Netanyahu, a commando leader, was killed in 1976 during the Israeli raid on Entebbe, and his family organized his letters in a book they titled Self-Portrait of a Hero. In one letter, Yoni wrote to his teenage brother, then living in America, who had apparently been in a fight after someone directed an anti-Semitic remark at him. “I see … that you had to release the surplus energy you stored up during the summer,” Yoni wrote. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s too bad you sprained a finger in the process. In my opinion, there’s nothing wrong with a good fist fight; on the contrary, if you’re young and you’re not seriously hurt, it won’t do you real harm. Remember what I told you? He who delivers the first blow, wins.”