- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When Israeli voters last went to the polls in March 2006 national elections, the balloting was arguably much more of a referendum on economic issues than national security. Israel’s West Bank security fence had dramatically reduced the number of suicide bombings, and rocket attacks were low. Israelis voted their pocketbooks, supporting left-of-center parties that favored greater social-welfare spending and giving the back of the hand to hawkish, security-focused parties like Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.

Nearly four years later, all of this has changed dramatically.

Israelis have had more time to listen to the lunatic ravings of Iran’s Holocaust-denying, death-to-Israel President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and to contemplate how their future would be imperiled if Iran obtained nuclear weapons. Israel fought inconclusive wars with Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas this year - both of them Iranian terrorist proxies. Recently, Hamas boss Khaled Meshaal visited Tehran, where he joined Ahmadinejad in declaring “victory” over Israel.

Many Israelis now believe the country no longer has the option of making this election a contest over who will better redistribute the wealth and expand the welfare state. Instead, it has become a referendum on who will best handle the challenges posed by Iran and its proxies.

Israelis receive constant reminders that the “cease-fire” that supposedly ended the Israel-Hamas fighting in Gaza last month is a sham, as terrorists continue to fire rockets and missiles into Israel. The understandable perception that Israel has lost a significant portion of its deterrent capability has politically benefited Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the hawkish opposition Likud Party and current front-runner. Netanyahu believes that the governing Kadima Party ended Israel’s military operation in Gaza too soon - before the Israeli military could end Hamas arms smuggling through tunnels between Egypt and Gaza that menaces Israel. Netanyahu promises to topple the Hamas regime in Gaza, although he has yet to explain how Israel could achieve that short of reoccupying the area (which Israel controlled from 1967 to 2005) for an extended period of time - something few Israelis want to see. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, standard-bearer of the ruling center-left Kadima Party in Tuesday’s election, emphasizes her party’s opposition to reoccupying Gaza.

While Israelis have little interest in returning to Gaza, all indications are that they will vote Kadima out of power. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s political career is ending - the result of political scandal and the perception of military failures in Gaza and Lebanon. Mrs. Livni is more popular than Olmert, but probably not enough to win the election. Newly released polls shows Kadima, which holds 29 seats in the 120-member Knesset, will end up with about 23 seats; Likud, which has 12 seats, will get about 26; the dovish Labor Party, which has 19, would fall to 15. The biggest pickup would likely go to Yisrael Beteinu, a party headed by mercurial, hawkish activist Avigdor Lieberman, which will go from 11 to 18 seats. Mr. Netanyahu has indicated he might form a broad-based national unity government that includes Likud, Labor and Yisrael Beteinu.

All of the major parties in Israel agree that Iran should not be permitted to develop nuclear weapons. Netanyahu, speaking to the Jerusalem Post last week, expressed hope that President Obama will limit his engagement with Iran to a set timeframe and insist that the final outcome involve Tehran dismantling its nuclear program. He said his meetings with Mr. Obama had been “positive” and were mostly devoted to the Iranian issue. During the Bush administration’s final months in office, Washington rebuffed Mr. Olmert’s request for bunker-buster weapons that could be used to destroy hardened Iranian nuclear facilities buried underground, and it would not allow Israel to fly over Iraq to get to Iran. If Mr. Netanyahu wins on Tuesday, what will Mr. Obama say if Netanyahu requests bunker-busters? And if the American president says no, would Netanyahu - with a proverbial Iranian knife at his nation’s throat - decide to go it alone in attacking Iranian nuclear and missile targets?


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