Netanyahu Seen Preparing Cabinet for Iran Strike

Israeli and Italian F-16 fighter jets in Sardinia, November 18, 2010
Israeli and Italian F-16 fighter jets in Sardinia, November 18, 2010 (IDF)

The addition of homeland defense minister Avi Dichter, a former deputy director of the internal security service, to Israel’s security cabinet is seen as a move on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s part to boost cabinet support for an airstrike on Iran.

Chuck Freilich writes in Foreign Policy that “Netanyahu has clearly been working to build such support” and suspects that “adding Avi Dichter as minister for homeland defense was partially designed to tip the balance in favor of an attack.”

The premier would at least need consensus among his cabinet’s nine top members to launch an attack on Iran which Israel suspects is developing a nuclear weapons capacity. Netanyahu has described the prospect of the Islamic republic acquiring such a weapon as an “existential threat” to the Jewish state. He rejected calls for patience to let the economic sanctions on Iran to work last month. “The world tells Israel, ‘Wait, There’s still time,’ he said. “And I say: ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?'”

Whether Dichter’s inclusion in the inner circle truly signals a step toward war is doubtful. There is a tendency, as Michael Koplow points out at his Ottomans and Zionists blog, to interpret every move on the Israeli government’s part as an indication that an attack is imminent. “The process at work here seems to assume that an attack will happen and then reverse engineer the facts to support that conclusion,” he writes.

Even if Dichter may favor an attack, besides Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak, there is scarce official support for it. Binyamin Begin, atomic energy and intelligence minister Dan Meridor, strategic affairs minister Moshe Ya’alon and Deputy Prime Minister Eliyahu Yishai, the leader of the Orthodox Shas party, are all opposed to a strike while Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister and leader of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu part, as well as Yuval Steinitz, the finance minister, are reportedly wavering back and forth.

Former Mossad cheif Meir Dagan, former security service director Yuval Diskin and Gavriel Ashkenazi, the former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, have also questioned the wisdom of launching an attack.

Netanyahu and Barak are probably banking on the fact that the other six ministers will back them when push comes to shove but that’s a real risk to take and the prime minister and defense minister cannot just make the decision on their own without the support of the rest of this group.

Israeli public opinion is also divided. 46 to 32 percent opposes a unilateral Israeli strike although the number in favor is up from 23 percent in March. Just over half of Israeli believe that the country would be in significant danger in the event of a war with Iran.

Netanyahu’s “Red Lines” Are Unacceptable

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been putting pressure on the Obama Administration in recent weeks to delineate the extent to which Iran’s suspected attempt to build a nuclear weapon can progress before the allies launch military action, arguing that it would work to “reduce the chances of the need” for it. The opposite is true.

Netanyahu made his case last Tuesday when he said that those “who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel” to strike unilaterally.

The world tells Israel, ‘Wait, There’s still time.’ And I say: ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’

But just as Israel is not expected to “delegate the job of stopping Iran, if all else fails, to someone else,” as Netanyahu put it on Sunday, the United States cannot be held hostage to a set of predefined conditions, presumably communicated in tandem with the Israelis. Read more “Netanyahu’s “Red Lines” Are Unacceptable”

Netanyahu Rejects Calls for Patience on Iran Sanctions

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear this week that Israel will not wait for the United States to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. “We cannot delegate the job of stopping Iran, if all else fails, to someone else,” he said on Sunday.

In an interview with NBC News’ Meet the Press, the Israeli leader rejected calls for patience, arguing, “the danger of not acting, in time, is much greater” than Israel striking to take out Iran’s nuclear sites and failing.

Netanyahu tried to downplay speculation that there is a rift between Israel and the United States about deterring Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability.

I just think it’s important to communicate to Iran that there’s a line that they won’t cross. I think a red line, in this case, works to reduce the chances of the need for military action.

The Obama Administration has refused to put down “red lines” on Iran’s nuclear program, arguing that economic sanctions should be given more time to put pressure on the regime in Tehran. Read more “Netanyahu Rejects Calls for Patience on Iran Sanctions”

Israel Does Not Seek Regime Change in Tehran

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that his country does not seek regime change in Iran on the condition that it suspends its uranium enrichment program.

Western powers that are in negotiation with Iran over its nuclear program suspect that it is designed for the Islamic country to be able to develop nuclear weapons. “All these talks,” lamented Netanyahu, “hasn’t stopped the regime one bit.”

The Israeli leader told Fox News Sunday that Wednesday’s bus bombing in the Bulgarian Black Sea resort city of Burgas was a reminder “that the world’s most dangerous regime must be allowed to have the world’s most dangerous weapons.” Iran supports the terrorist organization Hezbollah that Israel believes carried out the attack.

“I know, based on absolutely rock solid intelligence, this is Hezbollah and this is something Iran knows about very, very well,” said Netanyahu.

He expressed his frustration about the failure of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany to reach a deal with Iran under which it would forego any attempt to build nuclear weapons. Iran insists that it has no such ambition and that it is entitled to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.

“Since the previous rounds of talks, they’ve enriched material for five nuclear bombs,” according to Israel’s prime minister. “They’re basically thumbing their nose at the international community.”

They’re basically saying, we can talk, we can delay, we can deceive, while we’re continuing to race toward atomic weapons.

Since the five permanent members of the Security Council — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States — joined with Germany in 2006 to negotiate with Iran, there has been no breakthrough to stop Iran’s nuclear program. Throughout the years, Israel has repeatedly warned that it may resort to carrying out airstrikes against Iranian nuclear sites if there isn’t a diplomatic solution.

On Tuesday, the P5+1 will again meet with Iranian negotiators for a “technical” meeting in Turkey to “look further at how existing gaps in positions could be narrowed and how the process could be moved forward.”

Israel’s Netanyahu Splits Rival Liberal Party

Israel’s conservative prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has managed to split his main electoral competitor in the liberal Kadima party. Just two months after it joined his right-wing government, Kadima walked out of the coalition but it left Netanyahu in a stronger position for next year’s election.

The issue that split the ruling coalition was the military draft. Orthodox Jewish students, comprising some 10 percent of potential recruits, are exempt from military service to the chagrin of the majority of secular Israelis. The issue divided Netanyahu’s own Likud as well as his coalition when, before Kadima joined, it relied on the support of nationalist and religious parties.

Determining that it would be easier to fight a general election than resolve the dispute within his coalition, Netanyahu initially called early elections in May of this year before he reached an eleventh hour coalition agreement with Kadima.

The liberal party, formed by moderate Likud members in 2005 who disapproved of their party’s hawkish stand on a Palestinian peace plan and were altogether more socially progressive than their conservative counterparts, gave Netanyahu the broadest mandate in Israeli political history with 94 out of 120 seats in the Knesset.

By bringing in centrist lawmakers, the premier hoped to thin out the influence of right-wing fringe parties, “providing Netanyahu the potential breathing space he needs to negotiate with the Palestinians on matters such as settlement construction, security cooperation and further withdrawals of Israeli defense forces from the West Bank,” according to Daniel R. DePetris at the Atlantic Sentinel in May.

As long as his governing coalition relied on religiously-oriented parties, including foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beitenu, the Orthodox Shas and pro-settler factions of Likud, Netanyahu always had a reason (or excuse) not to offer the Palestinians any concessions.

Kadima‘s departure, logically, means that there will not be a change in Israel’s posture toward the Palestinians. Depending on one’s interpretation of Netanyahu’s sincerity, that is either a gain or a loss for him.

What is certainly advantageous for the prime minister’s electoral prospects — there will have to be legislative elections before October of next year — is that Kadima has been divided with at least seven legislators intending to rejoin Likud.

The more fundamental problem is that Kadima “has essentially transformed itself from one single issue party (disengagement from Gaza) to another single issue party (equalizing the burden of service),” writes Michael Koplow at Ottomans and Zionists. “While this is a popular issue, it is not enough to sustain a viable party.”

Politically, Netanyahu has nothing to win by playing into the left’s opposition to the exemption of Orthodox Jews from military service. He has everything to lose by alienating right-wing proponents of maintaining the law. It could divide his own party and drive conservative voters to the fringes at Likud‘s expense.

The matter has yet to be resolved but Netanyahu stands to benefit whatever decision he takes. Keeping the exemption in place will appease Orthodox voters who could flock to Likud in the next election. Netanyahu can easily justify the decision to seculars by arguing that he was held hostage by intransigent fringe parties. If he does, there will likely be little voter movement between the parties on the right and Netanyahu can continue in the same government post 2013.

If he scraps the law, Netanyahu undermines Kadima‘s newfound raison d’être and consolidates the liberal and conservative vote, putting him on a track to majority rule in alliance with Yisrael Beiteinu alone, condemning fringe parties to where they were — on the fringe.

Expanded Coalition Gives Netanyahu More Leeway

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, January 20 (DoD/D. Myles Cullen)

Just a week ago, members of the Israeli parliament were debating whether or not to disband the legislature in order to usher in early elections in September. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen today as one of the most popular politicians in the country, was a vocal backer of the idea. Worried that right-wing parties in his coalition were beginning to splinter over the divisive issue of military service for religious students, early elections could have reaffirmed Netanyahu’s domestic support and consolidated his power.

But in a last-minute change of heart, Netanyahu managed to strike a deal to avert early elections entirely. Read more “Expanded Coalition Gives Netanyahu More Leeway”

Early Election Could Strengthen Netanyahu’s Mandate

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, January 20 (DoD/D. Myles Cullen)

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu could call early elections in September or October. His conservative Likud party is expected to do well. An electoral victory would likely strengthen Netanyahu in his confrontational foreign policy toward Iran.

Netanyahu and his coalition partner, Ehud Barak, the defense minister, have drawn criticism from the opposition and within their own ranks for their hawkish stance on preventing Iran from attaining a nuclear weapons capacity.

Netanyahu routinely describes the possibility of a nuclear armed Iran as an “existential threat” to the Jewish state. Read more “Early Election Could Strengthen Netanyahu’s Mandate”

Netanyahu, Obama Split on How to Deter Iran

Their personal and professional relationship is defined by pundits in both Israel and the United States as “frosty,” but that could become a whole lot worse on Monday, when President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sit down together at the White House.

The issue that has put a stain on the relationship the most — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — will most likely receive little attention. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are at the top of the agenda. Read more “Netanyahu, Obama Split on How to Deter Iran”

Israel is Being Set Up

Pro-Palestinian activists on board what they describe as a “peace boat” on Monday urged Israel not to interfere in a planned aid flotilla that will sail for Gaza later this month.

Exactly one year ago, a similar flotilla was intercepted by the Israeli navy when it attempted to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip. When the ships refused to turn around, Israeli commandos boarded them and were attacked with metal rods and knives. Seven soldiers were injured. Nine activists were killed.

Israel has maintained a blockade of the Gaza Strip since Hamas came to power there in 2007 to prevent weapons from being smuggled into the territory.

Over the past five years, militants in Gaza and in south Lebanon have fired thousands of projectiles at Israeli cities and settlements. Most recently, in April, an anti-tank missile hit a school bus near the Gaza Strip. A teenager was critically wounded in the attack. Israel launched more than a dozen strikes against suspected terrorist targets across the border in retaliation. Hamas then hurried to announce a truce. Read more “Israel is Being Set Up”

Peace Talks Collapsed Because of Jordan

Remember the direct talks that occurred in September between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas? The question seems silly, but given the short duration (a total of sixteen hours), it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if people have forgotten that both sides actually spoke face to face. After just three meetings, the discussions broke off amid Israel’s refusal to extend the settlement moratorium. Abbas has stayed on the sidelines ever since, a position that he will continue to use as long as the Israeli government refuses to cease settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

The reason I bring this up is twofold. First, we haven’t had direct talks since that early September date and the United States has been desperately trying coax both sides into talking one on one for the past few months. (Is President Obama getting discouraged?) But more importantly, people in the media (and bloggers like myself) have been citing the wrong reasons as to why the talks collapsed.

Before this short Newsweek brief came out over the weekend, people similar to myself assumed that the September discussions were terminated because Netanyahu and Abbas were stubborn and unwavering in their demands. In other words, that Israelis wanted one thing, the Palestinians another, and a moderate compromise remained elusive.

This, apparently, was the wrong assumption to hold. According to Newsweek‘s Dan Ephron, the talks were doomed from the start, due to Netanyahu’s unwillingness to discuss anything before Israel’s “security concept” was accepted by Abbas’ negotiators. This may be a reasonable demand, given Israel’s contentious past with its Arab neighbors and Palestinian militants. But when one gets to the heart of what Israel’s “security concept” means, Netanyahu’s stubbornness simply becomes unjustifiable.

In details provided by Newsweek, Netanyahu wanted Israeli troops on Palestine’s side of the West Bank barrier, in addition to a large contingent of Israeli soldiers in the Jordan Valley.

This last demand is particularly difficult to understand. The state of Jordan is, based on Middle Eastern standards, one of the most moderate regimes in the region. Jordanian and Israeli intelligence have worked together repeatedly over the past decade on everything from immigration control to the tracking of militants. Jordan even holds a formal peace treaty with Israel, one of only two Arab states that do so (Egypt being the other). So why, despite all of these positives, was Netanyahu so insistent on retaining Israeli troops in the Jordan Valley?

Negotiators who were involved in the September talks confirm that the demand was due to Israel’s concern about Jordan turning more radical in the future. Last time I checked, Jordan was relatively stable, and the one political party that Israel has always been leery of, the Muslim Brotherhood, is largely a pragmatic political actor in Jordanian politics.

Netanyahu is either using Jordan as an excuse to surround a potential state of Palestine with Israeli troops, or King Abdullah’s Hashemite Kingdom is a lot more fragile than we all have been led to believe. Taking Netanyahu’s politics into account — and his desire to keep his right-wing coalition afloat — I’m guessing that the first statement weights more heavily in his mind than the second.