By the time Israelis go to the polls to elect a new prime minister, government and parliament, two events critical to their country’s future will be behind them: A new president will be sitting in the White House and Iran will be in the process of assembling its first nuclear bomb or warhead.
The US president and the next Israeli prime minister – both unknown for now – will have to get used to treating Iran as a nuclear power, with all the dire consequences of the world’s failure to prevent it happening.
The former US ambassador in Tel Aviv, Martin Indyk, a member of the Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s staff of Middle East advisers, said in a radio interview this week that, according to US intelligence evaluations handed to Obama, Iran will have between one and three nuclear bombs by the end of 2009.
The program was aired during the day when few Israelis are listening. Indyk’s disclosure therefore had little impact and most Israelis still believe that their air force can still attack Iran’s nuclear installations before it is too late.
If they are right, which is not very likely, the politician who orders this attack – or is trusted to do so if elected – will win the election. He will be credited with placing the national security interest ahead of any other consideration, including his popularity with the new US administration in Washington.
A sure win for any politician promising to destroy Iran’s nuclear program
For nine years, three successive Israeli prime ministers, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, explained to the electorate that following the line laid down by US president George W. Bush was necessary because of his pledge to keep a nuclear bomb out of Iranian hands before he left the White House.
The Israeli voter has began to grasp that those prime ministers used this as a pretext for policies that did nothing to advance Israeli security, such as the 2005 unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip which opened the door to Hamas rule and the botched 2006 war against Hizballah.
When the finality of a nuclear-armed Iran finally sinks into the Israeli voter’s consciousness, voting patterns will change radically.
For now, the latest opinion polls give the opposition Likud leader, former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, a slender lead (31%) over Kadima’s Tzipi Livni (29%).
Labor’s leader, defense minister Ehud Barak, lags far behind them with less than 9%.
All the polls, even those which show Netanyahu and Livni neck and neck with 33%, predict a majority of 61 (out of 120) seats for the right-of-center bloc, after their two years in opposition.
The left-wing bloc rates 47 seats, or 58, if the 11 Arab Knesset members are counted in.
Netanyahu is rated by 34% as best qualified to deal with security, primarily a nuclear-armed Iran, followed by Barak (24%) and Livni (14%).
These figures are bound to fluctuate before voting day. Three months is a long time on the volatile Middle East calendar where sudden and traumatic political and military events are commonplace.
Political blocs face realignment and rejuvenation
The ratings would be affected fundamentally if three imponderables came to be:
1. If the three heads of the outgoing government, prime minister Ehud Olmert, Livni and Barak got together on a decision to attack Iran’s nuclear installations before the new US president takes office and before their exit.
2. If the corruption and bribery investigations against Olmert lead to an indictment and force his suspension as transitional prime minister before the elections and handover of office to his No. 2, foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
3. A fundamental shakeout of the current political blocs – whether by realignment or the introduction of new faces. Some lawmakers are already testing the water outside their parties and weighing defection.
The defeated Kadima leader, transport minister Shaul Mofaz, refuses to accept the foreign minister’s leadership; former defense minister Amir Peretz of Labor is equally unable to come to terms with Barak, while the Arab minister Ghalem Majadleh is planning to quit Labor and set up a united Arab party.
As for new faces, the former chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, has been promised the defense portfolio in a Likud-led government. He is one of a line of new talent Netanyahu proposes to import.
While Israel’s political field is wide open, its security options are narrowing fast.