Thursday, January 05, 2006

Back to the Future

What happens, politically, in Israel after Ariel Sharon? Daniel Pipes says it's back to the future.

Of course, the passing of Mr. Sharon raises another, equally pressing question: how will a new Israeli government handle the Iran issue? Security is always a critical issue in any Israeli election, and Tehran's nuclear posturings have placed it front and center in this contest. As we have noted, Israeli officials have expressed divergent views on the threat posed by Iran's nuclear development efforts and its long-range missile program. Some Likud hard-liners see an imminent danger; others (including IDF Chief of Staff Lt Gen Dan Halutz) believe Iran is years away from developing nuclear weapons, although they could master critical technology in a matter of months.

Who benefits politically in this sort of situation. I agree with Daniel Pipes, and give the nod to Likud. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has already endorsed the "Begin Doctrine," of pre-emptive strikes, though he has moderated his tone a bit in recent weeks. Sharon succeeded because he fought--and won--a war against terrorists, demonstrating his ability to meet Israel's security concerns. In a post-Sharon environment, Likud's promises to aggressively defend Israel from emerging threats (including a potential Al Qaida presence in the Gaza Strip) may resonate with voters. With Sharon's departure from the scene, the Israeli electorate may cast its vote--and fate--with the conservatives.

Iran will also benefit from Israel's political upheaval. While some cabinet officials have warned Arab states against "taking advantage" of the situation, the passing of Sharon (and the resulting internal turmoil) will provide a window for Iran to press ahead with its nuclear program, with less fear of a preemptive Israeli attack. Until a new government settles into position, it is unlikely that an acting PM (or newly installed PM) would order a strike against Iran.

With its government in transition in the coming months, Israel will likely continue to support diplomatic efforts aimed at curtailing Iran's nuclear program. A more coherent strategy on Iran will emerge only with a new government; until then, Iran's nuclear scientists and technicians can make hay while Israeli political situation sorts itself out, although Tehran's window of opportunity may slam shut with a Likud victory in March.

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