Netanyahu's Political Coup -- and What About Iran and the Palestinians?

Political survival, not Iran, was uppermost on PM Netanyahu's mind when he called for early elections in Israel just a few days ago, as well as when he pulled a brilliant trick out of his sleeve and co-opted the Kadima Party in his coalition.

The fact that so many commentators, both inside and outside Israel, related Netanyahu's moves solely to the question of if and when Israel should strike Iran's nuclear program is a clear indication that Netanyahu succeeded in turning this issue into a focal point of world interest. However, Iran notwithstanding, Netanyahu has been confronted and still is with a string of domestic issues, particularly regarding the fate of settlements in the West Bank declared illegal by the Supreme Court, and the question of drafting ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to the IDF. In that regard, places like Migron and Givat Haulpana in Beit-El (near Ramallah), were more on his mind than even Iran; but then, how many people outside of Israel really know about them? The old coalition, one of the most right-wing in Israel's history, made it impossible for Netanyahu to follow the rulings of the Court without risking the continuation of his alliance with the settlers and their supporters both in Likud and in the religious parties. The question of drafting the Yeshiva students became a thorny issue for another coalition member, the Israel Beitenu Party of his foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The question of Iran, on the other hand, was not the issue that seemed to present Netanyahu with his greatest challenge inside his own coalition. Most of the pressure on him not to strike Iran, at least not in the foreseeable future, came from people outside of the coalition, and in some cases, outside of the political system altogether. The Iran question is not the number 1 issue on the agenda of many settlers and their representatives in the Netanyahu coalition.

Just some weeks ago, Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, one of the most influential Rabbis in the West Bank, published an article blaming Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak for playing up the Iran issue because of ego problems... the Rabbi made it very clear that the future of settlements, not Iran, and the "manufactured" danger posed by her, happen to be the most important priority. Many settlers and their supporters share this view of Israel's security woes, though surely not all of them. The fact is that the threats to break up the government came from these people, not from those who hold Iran as their most important problem.

If Netanyahu needed a reminder from these people about their concerns, he got it just two days ago, when he talked to a special Likud convention, amid continuous interruptions from religious members of the party protesting his "anti-settlements" policy.

The call for new elections was therefore meant to scare his right-wing opponents, but in the process it did the trick on the Kadima Party and its newly-elected leader General [Ret.] Shaul Mofaz. Facing up to public opinion polls indicating a complete rout, Mofaz chose survival over principle and decided to join Netanyahu. It was political interest, not Iran or the Palestinian issue, that motivated him. A few days ago, Mofaz publicly called Netanyahu a liar, and when asked about it yesterday, he said nonchalantly, that it was "behind him"...

The same Mofaz was one of those who criticized what seemed to be Netanyahu's rush to strike Iran. He also said in public that Israel should offer the Palestinians 100% of the West Bank, only to be attacked by some hawkish members of his own caucus. Complicated? Well, welcome to Israeli politics, where there is never a dull moment. Will Mofaz relate to these statements the same way he shrugged off questions about calling Netanyahu a "liar"?

Time will tell, of course, and in the meantime I am reminded of one of the more folkloristic lines of Hosni Mubarak of all people. The deposed dictator said once to one of his Israeli visitors that he is tired of listening to Israeli complaints about Iran. "You have so many Iranian-speaking Jews in senior positions in Israel, so send them to talk to the Ayatollahs in their language, and settle your differences with them..."

Shaul Mofaz, a former Chief-of-Staff of the IDF and defense Minister is one of those that Mubarrak referred to, but I will not advise anyone to read too much into that. His inclusion in the government will, in itself, not be the decisive factor insofar as a possible strike against Iran is concerned. The key man continues to be PM Netanyahu, who has made a move which widened his scope of maneuverability with regard to Iran, and also about the possibility of reactivating the moribund peace process with the Palestinians. So, a few more days for Netanyahu to celebrate a political victory and he will be confronted again with two crucial issues, that until now he proved indecisive about. The difference is that from now on he will not be able to blame coalition problems for his indecision.