Do Early Elections in Israel Imply an Israeli Strike on Iran This Fall?
Israeli PM Bibi Netanyahu has called for early elections, bringing the date forward from October 2013 to September 4 of this year. This announcement has caused much wringing of hands over the possibility that Bibi’s prime motivation in doing this is his desire to attack Iran this fall.
To help you make sense of what’s going on here and get a more informed sense of the likelihood of an approaching attack on Iran, I offer: 1) the likely reasons why Bibi pushed up the election date, 2) the logic behind the ensuing Iran anxiety, and 3) a reality check.
Q. Why did Bibi push up the election date?
A. One recent incident gave Bibi a salutary kick in the tush, although I think its overall importance is being exaggerated. His FM, Avigdor Lieberman -- he of the exophthalmic, unblinking gaze and charging rhinoceros approach to matters diplomatic -- announced that he no longer feels any obligation to hold up his end of the coalition with Likud, because of the Likud’s purported desire to appease the ultra-orthodox in their desire to continue to avoid army service following the expiration of the Tal Law in August. Far more motivating than Lieberman's hissy fit, though, is the pitiful state of the opposition.
As Jonathan Spyer notes, recent polling by the newspaper Yediot Aharonot indicates that in the current environment, Likud would likely increase its seats in the Knesset to 30 while the opposition Kadima party, which just tossed Tzipi Livni in favor of ex-general Shaul Mofaz, would plummet from 28 seats to 10. While Labor would likely grow significantly (from eight seats to 18), it would still not be in a position to challenge Likud. A brand new centrist party, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid, would take about 11 seats, while Lieberman's own Israel Beitenu party would likely lose a few, bringing it to about 13. None of the parties' leaders, even those who are most vociferous in their objections to Netanyahu, have ruled out joining a Likud coalition on principle.
What all this means is that even if Lieberman bolts, Bibi will have several options in building a new coalition. He could embrace the ultra-orthodox even more fervently, a consummation devoutly to be wished from their perspective should Lieberman and his party disappear from the coalition. Bibi could also go the other way by joining forces with the centrists. Remember that, as Spyer points out, Netanyahu's administration has presided over a period of both relative quiet on the security front and economic stability. He is operating from a position of strength, and it makes strategic sense to ask the public for their approbation at a moment when, for the most part, they're both satisfied with his performance and either disappointed or uncertain about his rivals.
There are some who believe, however, that all of the above is beside the point -- that what Bibi's really doing is playing a (very dangerous) game with dates to make it easier for him to launch an attack on Iran. Which brings us to our second question:
Q. Why do early elections seem to imply an attack on Iran in the fall?
A. Israeli commentator Amnon Abramovich said on television following Bibi's announcement that we should look for an Israeli attack on Iran to take place between the September 4 Israeli election, which will likely reinstall Bibi with a healthy mandate, and the American presidential election in November. The logic is twofold: 1) in that interim period, Obama will be so absorbed in trying to win his own election that he will be highly unlikely to risk alienating Jewish and other pro-Israel American voters by obstructing Bibi; and 2) once Obama is reelected (if that is indeed what happens), as a second-term president he will no longer feel beholden to that constituency and will obstruct Israel at will.
Ari Shavit, writing in Haaretz, adds that Netanyahu well remembers being dumped in favor of Ehud Barak after Bill Clinton came to power -- an event that itself had a precedent in the dumping of Yitzhak Shamir in favor of Yitzhak Rabin after George H. W. Bush came to power. "Obama loathes Netanyahu even more than Bush loathed Shamir or than Clinton loathed Netanyahu," Shavit writes. "If Obama wins in November, he will immediately crush the Israeli prime minister who dared to defy him." Shavit sees the election timetable as part of a dark Machiavellian strategy:
Netanyahu is working to advance a well-organized action plan, according to a strict timeable, that will bring the strategic crisis to boiling point before next winter. He is operating decisively within both the Israeli and the American political systems in order to reach his goal. So far he is getting what he wants, fashioning the chessboard to his liking. He is bringing to life the scenario of elections (in Israel), war (in Iran) and elections (in the United States).
Yikes, right? So:
Q. Is Israel going to attack Israel in the fall or not?
A. No, it isn't. Here's why.
- The Israeli people don't want a unilateral attack. The Israeli polling firm Dahaf published a survey recently indicating that fewer than a fifth of Israelis favor Israel striking Iran on its own. That's not to say they don't want action taken; 42% favor a joint US-Israel attack. A third oppose an attack on Iran under any circumstances.
- The Iranian nuclear program is scattered and buried, making it far more difficult to disrupt via a conventional air strike. The likelihood that Israel could take the whole program out in a single strike or series of strikes is essentially nil, meaning that an attack, even if crippling, would result in possibly devastating counterstrikes. That's a scenario Bibi is unlikely to countenance. A covert assault is much more likely to succeed, and is by its nature not something politicians or military leaders can discuss without compromising the likelihood of its success.
- The suggestion that Israel might attack this fall is powerful in its own right. As Jeffery Tobin noted at Commentary, the European Union's threat of an oil embargo of Iran "would have been unimaginable without their fear that an Israeli attack would overturn the entire Middle East chessboard." Though the nuclear talks that started with Iran last month seem to have sapped Israel's leverage, "if Obama believes there is a window for an Israeli attack in the fall prior to November, that might scare him into forcing Ashton and the negotiators to get tough." As dubious as this strategy might seem on its face, Tobin points out that it's already worked to some extent:
For all of the hysterical criticism being aimed at Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak for their supposed messianism about dealing with Iran, they have actually gone about their business on this issue in a rational manner. By making it clear to the world that Israel would not allow the Islamist regime to pose an existential threat to its existence, they have forced Obama to ratchet up his own rhetoric and to foreswear any policy of “containing” a nuclear Iran.