Analysis & Opinions - The National Interest

Israel's Election and the Iran Crisis

| January 18, 2013

Israel’s January 22 elections will produce a new government. The extent to which it will differ from the outgoing government remains to be seen. But efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons might be affected. Could the composition of a new Israeli government indirectly impact the Israeli-U.S. discourse on Iran's nuclear program?

Context

Assuming the January 22 Israeli elections will be followed by some three to six weeks of negotiations on the formation of the country's next governing coalition, Israel's new government will be sworn in sometime between mid-February and mid-March 2013. By that time, the decision making environment surrounding Iran's nuclear efforts is likely to be affected by two vectors: One is the expected further evolution of Iran's nuclear program. The other is the likely efforts of the United States to reach a negotiated resolution of the nuclear conflict with Iran.

If the pace of Iran's uranium enrichment activities are projected into the next six to nine months, by late spring or early summer 2013 Iran will likely possess enough uranium enriched to 3.5 percent and 20 percent to allow the construction of some 2–3 bombs within 2–3 months of a decision to do so being taken. At that point, Israeli leaders will become uncertain about the extent to which the difference between a nuclear-capable and nuclear-armed Iran will remain relevant. Even the more cautious, balanced, and level-headed among the Israeli defense and intelligence chiefs will then become very nervous, as so much would then rest on the ability to detect the decision of Iran's supreme leader to order the production of nuclear weapons.

The second expected vector is a heroic U.S.-led effort to negotiate a grand bargain with Iran to prevent it from "going nuclear." This effort will be motivated by the Obama administration's assessments that following the lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is war-weary; that even a limited military strike against Iran's nuclear installations might escalate, requiring another major U.S. military commitment in the Middle East; and that given the state of the U.S. economy and that of the national economies of America's principal trading partners, a military attack aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons may prove too costly. Given their positions on this issue, the recently announced nominations of senator John Kerry and former senator Chuck Hagel as the next U.S. secretaries of state and defense, respectively, point to this likely effort.

While these two vectors may come to head as early as late-spring or early- summer of 2013, a word of caution is needed. First, precisely because these trajectories may trigger irreversible steps, the most extreme of which would be a military strike, one can expect Iranian measures to avoid such a collision by extending the aforementioned timeline. One way Iran could do so is to slow the pace of its uranium-enrichment activities or earmark some of the uranium already enriched for peaceful purposes (such as the Tehran Research Reactor [TRR]) in an effort to signal that there is still time for a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Indeed, in late December 2012, there were indications that Iran has already taken such steps.

Second, once a heroic last-ditch effort to reach a negotiated grand bargain with Iran is underway, there will be great reluctance on the part of the United States and its European allies to admit that these efforts have failed. Precisely because such an announcement may trigger military action, pressures will mount to keep trying until it becomes completely clear that Iran is unwilling to yield any significant nuclear ground.

These two vectors will compel the next Israeli government to take decisions and confront challenges in at least three critically important realms: First, at what point should it regard Iran's nuclear efforts as having crossed a red line that requires activating existing contingency plans to abort or decapitate these efforts militarily? Second, what would be the components of a minimally acceptable deal with Iran, particularly with regard to its uranium-enrichment activities? It seems that to be acceptable to Iran such a deal would have to include some international recognition of Iran's right to enrich uranium, some enrichment to 3.5 percent on Iranian soil, and some 20 percent enriched uranium to fuel the TRR. Would a deal that includes such concessions be acceptable to Israel? And, from Israel’s perspective, how intrusive would the monitoring measures applied to verify that Iran is complying with these limitations have to be?

The third challenge that the next Israeli government will have to face in this area is how to best conduct its discourse with the Obama administration regarding the aforementioned questions. This would require striking the right balance between guarding Israel's national-security interests while maintaining the very close Israel-U.S. relationship, especially in the defense and intelligence realms.

Iran and the Israeli Domestic Scene

Understanding the possible ramifications of Israel's next elections on the efforts to avoid a nuclear Iran requires that a number of factors be taken into account: First, in Israel, the Iranian nuclear threat is not a partisan issue. Disagreements about the magnitude of the threat, its place relative to other external and internal challenges facing Israel, and, especially, how the issue should be addressed, cross party lines. Thus, these issues divide Israelis within their political parties and not between these parties. Indeed, much deeper divisions in Israel regarding these issues are often to be found between political leaders with clear but different party affiliations and defense professionals that have no such commitments.

Second, notwithstanding these divisions, prime minister and Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu is making Iran a central issue in the elections by arguing that the electorate should strengthen his party to project a credible threat that might dissuade Iran from continuing its present nuclear path. Indeed this was the central point made by Netanyahu and Yisrael Beiteinu leader and then foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman at their press conference announcing the merger of their parties into one Knesset elections list. Assuming that the two leaders will form Israel's next government, Ha'aretz editor Aluf Ben opined that the press conference amounted to declaring the creation of Israel's post-election "war cabinet."

Even more significant is the fact that although their views on Iran are unlikely to be challenged by other party leaders—thus in no way could the elections be considered a referendum on the Iran issue—Netanyahu and Liberman will argue that their victory implies that they have a public mandate to take whatever measures may be needed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

With this claim of "a mandate," Netanyahu will then push to launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations, and it will be far more difficult for Israel's security chiefs to resist. Netanyahu will state that the public has "had its say" and has accepted his argument that the threat associated with Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons is nothing short of existential, and that therefore opposing the measures required to prevent Iran from obtaining these weapons would circumvent the public will. Thus the balance between Netanyahu and Israel's defense chiefs, who may continue to advise greater caution about the use of military force against Iran's nuclear facilities, is likely to tilt in the prime minister's favor.

Third, having lost his political base, Defense Minister Barak is unlikely to hold his post in Israel's next government. Even if Netanyahu would be interested in inviting Barak to remain defense minister as a personal appointment, it is unlikely that the dynamics of the joint Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu party would allow the prime minister to do so. But the effects of Barak's likely departure are difficult to predict. While on the whole Barak served as the "responsible adult" in Israel's outgoing government, this was not always the case when he was dealing with Iran. In fact, until mid-2012 Barak seems to have been the security cabinet’s strongest proponent of military action against Iran.

At the same time, however, Barak also served as the most important channel of communication between the Israeli and American defense communities. As such, he was the prime venue through which U.S. defense chiefs—Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Leon Pinetta and Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs Mike Mullen and George Dempsey—communicated U.S. defense priorities with regard to Iran. Indeed, Barak's role was no less important in mitigating the potentially explosive relations between Netanyahu and President Obama and their respective staffs. But at this point, and without knowing who might replace Barak as defense minister, it is impossible to assess the precise impact of his likely departure.

The fourth possible effect of the domestic scene is associated with internal developments in Likud. One result of that party's recent primaries was the loss of seats by two key Likud pragmatists on the Iran issue: intelligence minister Dan Meridor and minister without portfolio Benjamin Begin. Because of their role in balancing the more bellicose and zealous members of the Israeli government, especially within the so-called “Octet”—the eight-member “kitchen cabinet” which has debated all the more important decision on defense affairs during Netanyahu's term—the two ministers' departure may significantly affect Israeli decisions on Iran.

Yet this change within Likud may be negated by almost the opposite development within another component of the Israel's current coalition government—the Sephardic Orthodox party Shas. While the party's positions on key issues seem to be determined solely by its supreme leader, the 91-year old Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, his political lieutenants yield considerable influence as well. And there, the party's leader and Minister of Interior Eli Yishai has recently been forced to share power with the charismatic Aryeh Deri. The latter is known to be very pragmatic on foreign and defense affairs; before serving time in prison on corruption charges, Deri was a close ally of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. More broadly, Shas leaders attach great importance to maintaining Israel’s close ties with the U.S. and are thus sensitive to Washington's concerns—a tendency which is likely to only deepen with Deri's return to power.

Proceed With Caution

It seems likely that following Israel's January 22 elections Benjamin Netanyahu will form a Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu-led Israeli government. But this is not a foregone conclusion.

Much depends on the precise results and the post-election negotiations on coalition formation. With a proportional elections system, small differences in the relative power of Israel's many political parties may significantly impact the composition of a governing coalition. Until the power ratios within Israel's next government are clarified and it becomes clear who will hold the key cabinet positions, it remains difficult to assess the impact of such developments on Israeli decisions regarding Iran.

Shai Feldman is the Judith and Sidney Swartz Director of Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies and a Senior Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

This article, in its original form, was commissioned for a joint Center for the National Interest-George Washington University workshop on Iran, held in November 2012 at Wye.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Feldman, Shai.“Israel's Election and the Iran Crisis.” The National Interest, January 18, 2013.

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