Monday 5 March 2012

Netanyahu's Gamble

Picture courtesy The London Evening Post
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has travelled to the United States to address the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).  This is probably the largest and highest profile event on the US Jewish calendar, and it is no surprise that Bibi makes a special point of attending each year.  Continued support, both financially and politically, of the American Jews is key to Bibi.  One of the other keynote speakers at the event will be US President Barack Obama.  It is handy that the conference is being held in Washington DC this year, only a hop and a skip from the White House.  In this, an election year for Obama, he will not be missing out on the opportunity to pander to the highly influential “Jewish vote”.

On the fringes of the AIPAC conference, Obama and Netanyahu have scheduled a meeting.  This will be the 9th time that the two leaders have met since Obama came to office almost four years ago, despite the fact that Obama has yet to pay a visit to Israel during this time.  Even though this meeting is taking place as a secondary event around the AIPAC conference, the importance of this meeting should not be underestimated.   There is really only one topic on the agenda, and this is the huge issue of Iran and its nuclear activities.  Netanyahu has decided to go to the USA, and enter into a gamble with Obama.
Although both the USA and Israel agree that the Iranian nuclear program is building the capability of producing a bomb, it seems also to be agreed that a bomb has yet to be constructed.  This fact appears to make the issue less pressing for the US president and his men.  The Israeli team is far less relaxed about this situation and, for them, the fact that Iran is able to build a bomb is the equivalent of Iran having a bomb.   This is why Netanyahu has been pressing the international community for so long to take action against Ahmadinejad, and the dangers that are presented by the Iranian nuclear program.  Until now, the international community has been prepared only to impose economic sanctions on Iran and not take a stronger military stand as Netanyahu would have preferred.  While the sanctions do seem to be biting into the Iranian economy, the construction of the nuclear program appears to proceed without slowing down at all.

The last time this situation presented itself was less than 5 short years ago when the issue of the Syrian nuclear reactor came up for discussion between then Prime Minister Olmert and former President George W. Bush.  Acting on strong advice from his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Bush decided that the right approach would be to make a public announcement about construction of a nuclear reactor in Syria, and harness the support of the international community to impose sanctions to make Syria toe the line.  In his book, Bush reveals that Olmert neither sought nor received US approval to bomb the Syrian reactor.  Instead, he instructed the Israeli Air Force to destroy the reactor after reacting to Bush’s recommendation by saying that he would be forced to do what is in the best interests of the security of the State of Israel.  With the benefit of hindsight, we have a few more pieces of information on this incident which may be guiding Netanyahu in the way that he wishes to deal with Ahmadinejad.  Firstly, we know that Assad was either unable or unwilling to respond militarily to this strike on his sovereign territory, which resulted in Olmert’s gamble paying off handsomely.  As such, the regional conflagration that was predicted would arise as a result of an Israeli strike never materialized.  Thanks to the current uprising in Syria, we now also know how Assad responds to pressure from the international community – with contempt.  Without the bold decision and unilateral action taken by Olmert 5 years ago, the international community may be viewing the uprising in Syria today in a completely different way.

Netanyahu is hoping to convince Obama to publicly state that the US is willing to consider the possibility of taking military action against Iran.  Although other US representatives, most notably military senior brass, have made statements along these lines, it has never come from the president himself.  Netanyahu regards a statement of preparedness to act militarily as a significant position from the US administration even if the Americans are not the ones who ultimately strike at Iran.  It will show that the military force is justified in dealing with this problem in the event that other actions are not effective, and it will also indicate a willingness on the part of the US administration to commit forces to the cause possibly as a back-up to Israel.  Netanyahu will be gambling on the fact that the AIPAC audience will want to hear this from Obama, and that Obama will be under huge election pressure to tell AIPAC what they wish to hear.  Even if the statement is made in their White House meeting which is due after Obama’s address to AIPAC, it will certainly be enough for Netanyahu.

The real problem for Netanyahu is that he is also in the midst of gearing up for an election of his own.  Israel will go to the polls within the next 12 months to choose a new government, and Netanyahu will wish to have the Iran problem safely behind him by then.  Any success that he achieves on this front will almost certainly guarantee him re-election.  Netanyahu would, of course, prefer for the US military to take care of the problem.  This seems highly unlikely as Obama will be looking for every excuse not to commit his military to action in Iran during the lead-up to the US election.

Behind all of this is Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who is playing things as cool as a cucumber.  His authority in Iran may be weakened as a result of this weekend’s elections which showed a substantial swing away from him.  He may be at loggerheads with Supreme Leader Khameini, and he may be persona non grata in much of the international community.  None of this, however, prevents him from bashing Israel at every opportunity in a way that is reminiscent of the public shows of anti-Semitism that preceded the Holocaust.  It also does not prevent him from continuing to build his nuclear capability, causing further instability to an already highly volatile region.

Netanyahu is often presented as being prepared to take decisions which fly in the face of the international community.  His ability to act boldly and smartly will be severely tested over the coming months as he battles with the correct course of action to bring the Iranian threat to a sensible conclusion.  He needs to be able to achieve this without bringing undue risk or harm to the citizens of Israel.  This will be a huge challenge when we know that the Iranian military has hundreds of Shihab missiles targeted at Israel, and would not hesitate to use them if the situation demanded it.  Netanyahu’s first step in achieving this is to bring off his gamble with Obama this week.

All the time that the Iranian saga drags on, oil prices are bound to increase exponentially.  Neither Obama nor Netanyahu will get any thanks for that, which makes their window of opportunity for action much tighter.   Netanyahu’s political and diplomatic skills will be tested to their maximum over the next few months as he makes critical decisions as to each action to be taken against Iran.  The stakes are high.  Success could elevate him to the upper echelons of international statesmanship. Failure could risk the very existence of the State of Israel.

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