The limits of brinkmanship

Despite the differences between the Greek and Israeli situations, the use of brinkmanship by both countries as is dangerous in both cases.

Greek parliament 311 (photo credit: REuters)
Greek parliament 311
(photo credit: REuters)
Last week, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou announced he would hold a national referendum on the Eurozone’s harsh conditions for bailing Greece out of its financial crisis.
The harsh conditions attached by leaders of the Eurozone for getting the banks to erase half the Greek debt, while immediately handing over another 8 billion euro to the Greek government will affect the Greek economy and the welfare of Greek citizens for years to come. Therefore, it’s not unreasonable that they be asked to express their approval or rejection of the deal.
However, it was also very dangerous, as rejecting the deal would have had consequences for the world economy so horrendous that not even financial experts are able to start evaluating them.
Less than two days after announcing the referendum, Papandreou cancelled the idea – largely as a result of the very strong pressure exerted by Eurozone leaders. However, it is quite likely Papandreou never intended to hold a referendum in the first place. His announcement could have been merely a tactical move designed to confront counter violent public disapproval of his government’s treatment of the financial crisis, and to deal with the immediate danger of his government being brought down in a vote of no-confidence in the Greek parliament.
Whatever the motive, Papandreou’s move seems to have worked – at least temporarily. His government survived the no-confidence vote held on Saturday morning, and the leaders of the Eurozone, together with stock markets all over the world, heaved a sigh of relief.
Now Papandreou is hoping to form an interim national unity government that will have the power and moral authority to take the decisions that must be taken, and implement the policies from which there is no escape.
In any case, Papandreou’s actions were nothing less than brinkmanship, a high risk game that may easily end in disaster.
Brinkmanship is also what Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are currently engaged in with regard to the Iranian issue. Netanyahu and Barak are actively involved in a world-wide media campaign designed to give the impression that Israel is about to attack Iranian nuclear installations, before they become operational for military purposes.
It is no secret that the IDF and various intelligence services strongly object to a unilateral Israel attack on the installations, as do many of the most hawkish MKs – including Moshe Ya’alon and Avigdor Lieberman.
Therefore, the only explanation is that Netanyahu and Barak are trying to scare the Iranians on the one hand, and push the international community into effective economic sanctions against Iran, and possibly also some form of military action if economic sanctions fail.
Since it is doubtful that Netanyahu and Barak are seriously contemplating an attack on Iran, which could lead to a regional conflagration involving a war on several fronts, and thousands of rockets falling in populated areas, the likelihood that they will decide to hold a referendum on the issue to bypass the opposition is nil, even though a recent public opinion poll indicated that at least 42 percent of the Israeli public favor an attack in Iran.
In fact, referenda, as a form of direct democracy, are not part of the Israeli system of government, In November 2010 the Knesset passed a law stating that in the event of Israel signing an agreement with one of its neighbors involving the surrender of territories which it currently controls, if less than 80 of the 120 Knesset Members vote to approve the agreement a national referendum will also be required. Currently, referenda cannot legally be held in Israel on any other issue, though every once in a while MKs from various parties raise the idea.
Despite the differences between the Greek and Israeli situations, the use of brinkmanship by the leaders of both countries as a tactical means for achieving goals that are not clearly defined is dangerous in both cases.
The problem with brinkmanship is that even the slightest miscalculation can end in total pandemonium. In the case of Greece the danger is economic collapse and anarchy. In the case of Israel the danger is that Iran will react irrationally, and then God save us all.
The writer is a member of the Labor Party and is currently engaged in research and lecturing on the Knesset.