Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given in to the temptation he has felt all this year — to shatter the gridlock in his sprawling, multi-party cabinet by calling an early election for Jan. 22. If he can win a bigger majority in the Knesset, he can handpick more of his own ministers.
That election date comes about four months before Netanyahu’s deadline for a fateful decision on how to stop Iran’s steadily advancing uranium enrichment — the “red line” he drew with a magic marker at the United Nations in New York two weeks ago.
The prime minister is hoping that voters in his country will give him a renewed and stronger mandate to deal with Iran and to deal with the United States: forcefully with the former, and perhaps using more genteel diplomacy with the latter.
Israelis increasingly realize that they need the support, and perhaps even the participation, of the American military to make any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities truly effective. The timeline unveiled by Netanyahu at the UN suggested that by the spring or summer of 2013, Iran will reach a key stage, enriching enough uranium to make a quick and secretive dash toward building nuclear bombs.
The prime minister, who is strongly favored to win a fresh mandate, needs to be ready to engineer American support in the Iran crisis — whether it is Barack Obama or Mitt Romney in the White House starting Jan. 20.
If it is Romney who wins, Israeli politicians are fairly confident that they will have an avowed friend in the Oval Office: someone who suggests that whatever Israel decides to do to defend itself is fine with him. Strategists in Israel have cautioned, however, that a new president often is unable in his first year to get the immense military and bureaucracy of the United States to do anything hugely dramatic. As some of them put it: Romney is very friendly, but he might not come through.
If Obama is re-elected, Netanyahu faces a subtler task. He plainly does not get along well with Obama on a personal basis, but what really counts is their political friction. That is what makes many Israelis nervous. They have been highly attuned, since the start of a tight strategic relationship with the United States in the early 1970s, to the level of support they feel from Washington. Israeli politicians who let hostility with Washington fester do so at their own political peril.
The Israeli leader, especially if he and Obama both win new four-year terms, will need what a Romney aide once called an Etch-a-Sketch: a device that he can shake and thus forget about all that was said and done beforehand. Netanyahu needs to erase the battle lines with the White House, starkly drawn since 2009 by both him and Obama — even as their official spokespeople almost always deny the dissonance.
At the start of their feud four years ago, the new American president was visiting Cairo and reaching out to offer talks with Tehran. That was Obama’s way of pushing for a new approach to the Middle East, one that did not seem so heavily tilted toward Israeli government policies as George W. Bush’s had been. The Nobel Prize committee plainly loved the change, and Obama won the world’s most prominent peace prize.
Netanyahu, however, felt that he had to protect his view of Israel’s security. He was reluctant to freeze housing construction for Jewish settlers in the West Bank and was adamantly opposed to any restrictions in east Jerusalem.
The prime minister practically lectured the president in public, as they sat side by side in the Oval Office. Netanyahu was out to impress Israeli voters and his somewhat fragile coalition back home. He seemed less concerned about the ill will growing in parts of the Obama administration. The Israeli leader was certainly encouraged by standing ovations when he addressed a joint session of Congress in Washington.
For the sake of U.S.-Israel relations, he should find a way to shake things up in a positive way. He might find gestures that he can make to the Palestinian Authority, giving American diplomacy an opening to try to restart peace negotiations that have withered to nothingness. There are many reasons for any occupant of the White House to want to appear as a peacemaker in the Middle East.
Netanyahu may instead choose to return to saber rattling toward Iran, trying to reap some of the benefits he believes he achieved in the past year or so of threatening war. He did indeed have a hand in persuading the United States and Europe to make economic sanctions against Iran even harsher. Israel, in the past decade, has succeeded in focusing much of the world’s attention on the dangers of Iran developing nuclear weapons. This is one of the accomplishments likely to help him win votes in January.
Dan Raviv, a CBS News correspondent, is co-author of “Every Spy a Prince” and a new history of Israeli espionage and security, “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.” He blogs at IsraelSpy.