Tel Aviv — For weeks the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran threatened to upend the presidential race between President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney. But now, it looks more likely that Iran will figure prominently in Israel’s elections next year.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu removed the cloud of possible war with Iran from the U.S. election when he told the United Nations last week (with the help of his by now famous bomb chart) that it would be take at least until spring 2013 to reach the “red line” for a military attack.
But by pushing back the moment of truth on Iran’s nuclear program by nine months, Netanyahu is positioning himself to benefit politically, say analysts.
With speculation surging this week that the prime minister will call new elections, it looks as if continued anxiety among Israelis about the threat of a nuclear-armed Tehran could figure as the prime minister’s trump card with which to overcome vulnerabilities on socioeconomic policies that his opponents will try to exploit.
Netanyahu is likely to remind Israelis that Iran is nearing nuclear capability and play up himself as the best suited to handle a confrontation that could break out next year.
“Likud is going to push Iran, and emphasize that this is the most critical period in Israel’s history — that’s where [Netanyahu’s] strength lies,” said Sam Lehman Wilzig, a political science professor at Bar Ilan University.
The prime minister’s chief rival from the left, expected to be the Labor Party and its leader, Shelly Yachimovich, is likely to adopt criticisms of the government made during the wave of social protest that swept the country in 2011. Economic issues like Israel’s high cost of living and income inequality continue to hold the attention of Israelis, and the main battle of the next election might be what’s more pressing: Iran or the economy.
“It’s going to be a war over what is going to be the agenda, rather than the policy that is more important for Israel to focus on,” Wilzig said.
Netanyahu huddled with top coalition allies on Tuesday to size up the prospects for passing the annual budget. The thinking is that if the prime minister believes his partners are liable to be unruly and try to extort entitlements, he’ll opt for elections rather than a humiliating round of political payoffs.
Indeed, Interior Minister Eli Yishai told Israel Radio that he expects a vote by February 2013. That’s because the upcoming budget proposal contains unpopular budget cuts that coalition partners are not going to want to support with elections on the horizon. Israeli treasury officials are reportedly counseling the prime minister to opt for elections rather than engaging in horse trades.
While observers caution that a decision on an election is not a done deal, Israeli commentators are treating it as a fait accompli.
At the UN, “Netanyahu prepared the ground not only for a possible Israeli strike on Iran next spring, but for an election campaign that will be dubbed ‘the most fateful since the establishment of the state,’” wrote Yossi Verter in the left-leaning Haaretz. “Netanyahu will tell the Israeli voters, as he already began to Thursday, that in this matter, you have no one to rely on, not even our Father in Heaven, except for me.”
Indeed, according to conventional wisdom in Israel, Iran works as an election issue for Netanyahu because it plays to Israeli fears of being vulnerable to a massive attack.
But Yehuda Ben Meir, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, considers Iran a double-edged sword that could easily draw blood from the prime minister.
“Israelis agree that a nuclear Iran is the gravest danger. As for the question of exactly what to do about it, there’s a controversy,” he said. “What will Bibi say? Vote for me and I’ll bomb Iran? He knows that half the people are opposed to Israel doing that without the U.S.”
Indeed, along with Iran being a central focus of the campaign, it is likely that Netanyahu’s rivals will take aim at his handling of U.S.-Israel ties and his contribution to the open estrangement with President Barack Obama — a soap opera-ish saga that has clouded ties between the two allies. Israelis are keen on keeping ties close with the country’s most important backer, and in the past have punished politicians they perceive as hurting ties.
“Relations with the U.S. will definitely be an issue,” said Avraham Diskin, a political science professor at Hebrew University. “We already see [Kadima leader Shaul] Mofaz and others in the opposition attacking Netanyahu for causing the tension with the U.S.”
And on Tuesday and Wednesday, Likud’s Netanyahu loyalists, like Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, attacked Defense Minister Ehud Barak for allegedly undermining the prime minister during meetings in the U.S. last month. In response, Barak suggested that his meetings were in effect damage control for actions by the prime minister that undermined Israel’s security interests.
The defense minister is seeking “to lower tensions and strengthen U.S. support for Israel’s security,” read a statement by his office. After acknowledging Netanyahu’s insistence on Israel’s right to independent decision making vis a vis Iran, the statement added, “At the same time, we must not forget the unique security and intelligence ties formulated in the last five years during which Barak has served as defense minister.”
However, the politicization of the Iran issue in an upcoming election could undermine Israel on the international stage, warned Meir Javedanfar, an Iran expert at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.
“This is the first Israeli election where Iran can be played as a winning card,” he said. “Unfortunately Iran has turned into a domestic issue. Instead of a consensus security issue, it’s been turned into a tool of domestic politics, and this hurts the legitimacy of Israel’s very valid concern about Iran’s nuclear program.”
The coming debate over Israel’s strategy toward Iran has even drawn in politicians like Yair Lapid, the charismatic former news anchor who has focused mainly on socioeconomic issues, such as the draft of the fervently Orthodox. In an article distributed by his campaign, Lapid attacked Netanyahu for saber rattling, and suggested he focus on economic sanctions rather than red lines at the United Nations.
“The discussion shouldn’t be about what will Israel do, but rather about what will the world do?” Lapid said. To stop Iran, Israel’s leader needs to work “quietly, behind the scenes, without exploding headlines, without scaring the public to death, without red lines that no one understands, and if possible, without comics illustrations,” a reference to the “red line” cartoon drawing Netanyahu used during his UN address.