Defense: Iran and the elections

How will the decision to go to the polls effect Israel’s calculations on if and when to strike Tehran’s nuclear facilities?

Ehud Olmert at the Jerusalem Post Conference 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ehud Olmert at the Jerusalem Post Conference 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
On June 7, 1981, Israeli F-16 fighter jets flew to Iraq and bombed the Osirak reactor under construction near Baghdad.
Three weeks later, Israel went to the polls and Menachem Begin’s Likud Party defeated Shimon Peres’s Alignment by half a percentage point despite last minute polls predicting an opposite result.
Was it the successful strike against Iraq’s reactor that gained Begin a second term in office? No one can say for certain, although it would be difficult to imagine that the upcoming elections did not play a role – even if a minute one – in the government’s calculations and considerations before authorizing the risky operation.
Fast-forward 31 years and Israel is once again on its way to elections and possibly to Iran, to bomb its nuclear facilities.
The question now is how and if the upcoming elections factor into Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s and Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s calculations regarding Iran and whether they should attack before elections or after elections.
There are pros and cons to both sides of the argument. On the one hand, it is possible that Netanyahu will look to attack Iran before elections with the aim of winning the vote on the heels of a successful strike, as Begin did back in 1981.
This could be a major consideration for Barak, whose Independence Party launched its campaign this week under the slogan “The right man [Barak – Y.K.] for security.”
In the party’s ads, which were published in Thursday’s newspapers, Independence does not have a website or even an official party email address.
The ad refers to Barak’s personal Facebook page and to a Gmail address.
If it wasn’t already clear, all of this together means that the elections are not about getting Independence into the Knesset but rather about ensuring that Barak continues to serve as defense minister, or at least in a position of influence in the next cabinet – maybe as Israel's first “minister for Iran.”
The problem with this argument is that Iran is not Iraq and this time the ayatollahs, together with Hezbollah, Hamas and possibly even Syria, are expected to respond quite aggressively to an Israeli strike. This would mean that even if the original strike against the nuclear facilities is successful, the large number of casualties and extensive devastation to the home front could cost Netanyahu the elections.
On the other hand, it is possible that Netanyahu will anyhow prefer to wait until after elections before deciding to attack Iran. This way, he will solidify his rule – current polls show him leading – with the elections, after which he will attack when he knows that his continued premiership is secure for another few years.
The problem with this argument is that in Israeli politics nothing is certain until election day and someone who is leading in the polls in May could end up losing the vote in September. Netanyahu will therefore be taking something of a risk.
The upcoming elections might actually be the catalyst for the outpour of criticism of Netanyahu and Barak this week.
This is what has happened in the past week: IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz said in a series of interviews that sanctions against Iran were proving to be effective and that he was optimistic that the ayatollahs would ultimately decide against manufacturing a nuclear weapon. Next came Netanyahu and Barak, who each individually contradicted Gantz’s assessment and said that the sanctions were not effective.
On Friday, the real bombshell was dropped when former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Yuval Diskin, who decided to tell a town hall-style meeting that he did not trust Netanyahu’s and Barak’s decision- making and accused them of being led by “messianic feelings.”
On Sunday, attention was diverted to The Jerusalem Post Conference in New York City where former Mossad chief Meir Dagan said that Iran needs to be dealt with by the world and not Israel, where former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi said that a strike is not needed tomorrow morning and where former prime minister Ehud Olmert went so far as to question whether an Israeli strike would even achieve the result needed to ensure Israel’s security.
There are a number of ways to look at this cacophony on Iran.
On one hand there are those who could argue that the group of former officials is actively undermining Israel's efforts to get the world to crack down on Iran, making it seem as though Israel’s threat to use military force is actually an empty one.
On the other hand, it could be looked at differently. By describing Netanyahu and Barak as extremists with messianic tendencies, these former officials are giving the impression that Israel really is going to attack Iran despite the misgivings of almost the entire international community. This could end up helping to get the world to crack down even further on Iran.
The problem is that what these former officials say cannot be taken merely at face value since most of them have political ambitions. Olmert is a former prime minister who is yearning for a political comeback once he finishes his legal saga; Dagan has already established an NGO aimed at changing the government system in Israel; and Ashkenazi is plotting his own political run for two years from now, once the mandatory cooling-off period expires.
The only one who doesn’t have these ambitions – at least for the time being – is Diskin, who known for his cool and restrained demeanor. What brought him to speak in such a way is still mostly a mystery.
Diskin has probably been troubled by this for some time and both Ashkenazi and Dagan, who know the former Shin Bet chief well, said that he “spoke from the heart.”
What remains unknown is what suddenly caused him to speak up now.
While these are genuine differences on how to view the threat from Iran, even Netanyahu and Barak agree that Israel still needs to give time for sanctions and diplomacy to take effect before deciding whether or not to attack. The next round of talks between the Western powers and Iran in Baghdad later this month will be a critical juncture for Israel in determining its policy and what it will do this summer.