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Isracast Weekend Report: Now to Israel's Election Campaign!

Analyst David Essing assesses the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel After President Barak Obama's Victory - at least Netanyahu did not spoil Obama's election chances by ordering an attack on Iran before Nov 6

Isracast also draws some conclusions about clandestine operations against Iran's nuclear weapons project as now revealed by Israel's top leaders

Benyamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

 Will Barack Obama now retaliate against Israel for Bibi Netanyahu's betting on Mitt Romney? Netanyahu's rivals are attacking the Prime Minister for acting irresponsibly by showing his preference for the defeated Republican candidate. Although Netanyahu bet and he bet wrong, the issue is unlikely to be a game-changer in Israel's election campaign that has yet to move into top gear for January 22. First Likud and labor must hold their primaries for the party list of candidates and Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni must decide once and for all whether to throw their hats into the ring. Meanwhile Netanyahu is trying vigorously to repair some of his damaged bridges with Obama with statements like: "I will continue to work with President Obama to protect the security interests of Israeli citizens". And the PM stressed:"The strategic alliance between Israel and the U.S. is stronger than ever'. (In all fairness it should be said that the much maligned Defense Minister Ehud Barak deserves most of the credit for the 'unprecedented' military collaboration between the two countries. Netanyahu often dispatched Barak on special missions to Washington to smooth over the not infrequent tiffs with the White House and keep relations on the rails with the Pentagon. But the overbearing Barak is often his own worst enemy when it comes to Israeli politics and his Independence party might not win even one seat in the election).

 Chicago Mayor Ram Emanuel, a close friend and a former aide to Obama, rejects the idea the U.S. President will now pay back Netanyahu. Emanuel told Israel's Channel 1 TV that he expected Obama to continue the close cooperation with Israel. However the differences between Netanyahu and Obama emanated not only from the Iranian nuclear threat but also the Palestinian peace process. In particular, in his Cairo address to the Arab world the President declared: "Settlements must stop!" Under Obama's pressure, Netanyahu froze building at settlements for ten months while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refused to even come to the table and has sought an imposed settlement by the U.N. To top it off the 'moderate' Abbas had now reunited with genocidal Hamas.

Could Netanyahu and Obama first face-off over recently announced Israeli plans to build new housing units over the 1967 line which has already triggered American criticism? Will this be the first Israeli casualty during Obama's second term? Then there is the $3 billion in military aid that Israel receives annually from the U.S. – might it fall prey to future belt-tightening by the administration. In another theatre, a new round of nuclear negotiations is in the cards between the U.S. and Iran. Netanyahu is convinced Tehran will again try to string along Washington - the Israeli leader, if reelected, has set a deadline of spring or early summer for stopping Iran from producing their first A-Bomb. All these ingredients will provide plenty of ammunition for Israel's election campaign.

On paper there are additional candidates galore who might challenge Netanyahu, but will they throw their hats into the ring again? Starting at the very top, there's Shimon Peres. At age 89, Peres is not in his dotage but is as sharp as ever and one of the most popular personalities on both the international and domestic scene. Actually Peres has never hidden his admiration for Obama. Nor has his bipartisan position of state president ever stopped him from speaking out on burning issues of the day. For example, Peres has stated loud and clear that Israel should not go it alone against Iran and in his view the recent statements by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas were 'very important'. Former Kadima leader Tzipi leader has been urging Peres to resign as state president and head up a new Centrist bloc to challenge Netanyahu. Livni also wants a piece of the political action.

Shimon Peres (Photo: Amit Shabi)

While on a trip to Moscow for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, a reporter queried Peres about a possible career change. Peres cracked: "I'm not planning the theatre or ballet." For many, that did not sound as a definite no. Now Peres did not have to replicate Lyndon Johnson's ' I will not seek and I will not accept….' But he could have been more decisive if he had wanted to but apparently he didn't. After more speculation in the media, the President issued a firm commitment to finish his term that expires in another eight months and would not return to politics. This does sound pretty final but who knows? When it comes to Shimon Peres, never underestimate the drive of Israel's 'energizer bunny'.

But if Peres is now out, Ehud Olmert is a potential candidate who does want desperately to take another run at the premiership. Olmert, as has Livni, baited his time awaiting the outcome of the U.S. election hoping that Obama would win. He has never let his perpetual sea of legal troubles even get in the way of his political ambitions. However the State Prosecutor's appeal of a lower court verdict to the Supreme Court could put the kibosh on Olmert's entering the campaign.

At present, Labor's Shelly Yachimovich is Netanyahu's closest rival. Known in Israel as Shelly, she has picked up where the massive social protest movement from the summer of 2011 left off. Her campaign has zoomed in on the widening gap between the 'haves' and the spiraling number of 'have-nots' in Israel and the polls indicate that feisty Shelly is on the ascendancy. But while Shelly's hard-hitting articulation has gained her popularity she is in total lack of defense or foreign affairs experience. Nor at present has she succeeded in recruiting any former IDF generals or Mossad chiefs to beef up her team. (She did have retired Gen. Uri Sagie on board before two women informed Shelly that Sagie had made improper sexual advances to them when they served under his command in the IDF. Although denying the allegations, Sagie immediately quit politics. So Shelly is out shopping again for another military type. The irony is that former Labor party leader Ehud Barak would be just the man she needs for the job. But no way - Shelly lead the rebellion in Labor against Barak because he would not quit the Netanyahu coalition but preferred to remain as defense minister.


Never in the history of Israeli conflict have so many heard so much by so few - Winston Churchill's memorable statement from World War II comes to mind in the Israeli context. It has to do with the recent revelations of Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and Binyamin Netanyahu about Israel's covert war against Iran's nuclear weapons project. Cloaked under tight censorship for years, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the current incumbent Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak threw caution to the wind while being interviewed by investigative reporter Ilana Dayan for Channel 2 TV in Israel. What triggered this sudden outburst by three top leaders on the most sensitive of Israeli security issues? It's election time not only in the U.S. but also in Israel. At a time he is fighting legal prosecution for sticking his fingers into the public cookie jar, Olmert is mulling over the possibility of leading a centrist bloc against Netanyahu in the January election.

The Mossad reports directly to the prime minister and it looks as if Olmert was obviously interested in playing up his role in operations that apparently delayed the Iranians from getting their hands on the A-bomb. So he went public in a revealing interview in which he also lambasted his successor Netanyahu and Barak for their handling of the Iran file. Olmert served as prime from 2006 to 2009, when Labor party leader Barak exploited the Winograd Commission Report to force him to resign for his inept handling of the Second Lebanon War. With her explosive Olmert in the bag, Dayan was then able to cajole Netanyahu and Barak into answering Olmert's allegations. The result was a battle royal on Channel 2 giving Israeli viewers, and the rest of the world, a rare inside look into Israel's covert campaign against Iran.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (Photo: Amit Shabi)

Olmert referred to Israeli covert operations, some of which he ordered aborted because of the risk of harming innocent bystanders. He even revealed that at a one-on-one meeting, he had once handed U.S. President George Bush 'a piece of 'physical evidence from inside a top-secret Iranian facility' that proved that work was proceeding on nuclear weapons. (Former U.S. national security official Steven Hadley said although the U.S. probably has the greatest technological intelligence network in the Middle East, Israel is probably better in 'humint'). During his term, Olmert disclosed that he and Bush had ordered their intelligence services to hold nothing back from one another when it came to Iran's nuclear weapons project. And although Bush went out of his way to collaborate with Israel he stopped short of providing strategic weapons 'if Israel was planning to use them for striking Iran'.

In 2007 when Israel uncovered the secret Syrian reactor being built with North Korea's aid, at one point Olmert called Bush to say it posed an unacceptable threat and Israel would take action. Bush replied that he favored a diplomatic solution and the U.S. would not give 'a green light' for the surgical strike. Olmert replied that he had already made up his mind. After the call, the U.S. President turned to one of his aides and said: "That guy has guts!"

Overall, Olmert stressed that his close cooperation with the U.S. had been the right policy and had paid big dividends. The former PM took Netanyahu to task for clashing swords with President Barack Obama. In his view, it was a major mistake to go against America's wishes and threaten to go it alone against Iran: "Against our best friend that supplies us the aircraft and the weapons to do so and who we will turn to for help, if things go awry". On this score, Netanyahu later said that Israel could not put its self-defense in the hands of anyone else, even the U.S. He noted that Menahem Begin had not asked for America's permission when he ordered the bombing of Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor. Nor had David Ben Gurion, when he decided to declare the independent state of Israel in 1938, nor had Levi Eshkol when he launched the Six Day War in 1967 to break the Arab stranglehold on the Jewish state. When asked if he could guarantee the eliminating of the Iranian nuclear threat by the end of his next term if he is reelected, Netanyahu answered emphatically: 'Yes!'.

While Olmert took some pot shots at Netanyahu, he saved his heaviest salvoes for Ehud Barak. While admitting that Barak was one of Israel's top generals, Olmert claimed that Barak, the defense minister, needed supervision. Barak retorted that Olmert's bungling of the Second Lebanon War was documented by the Winnograd Commission.

Israeli Air Force F15 (photo: iaf.org.il)

One of the most startling revelations of the TV program was that Netanyahu and Barak had sought the seven member inner security cabinet to approve the upgrading of IDF preparedness to the very high level of 'P-plus' for an attack on Iran. This was said to be the code-word for a state of readiness that would launch an attack 'within hours or weeks', if so ordered. Mossad Director Meir Dagan objected on the spot contending that such a step could be illegal because only the full cabinet could decide on going to war. IDF Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi was also opposed contending that his forces were not ready yet for such an extensive operation but the insinuation was that he also felt that time had not run out. This developed into a verbal confrontation.

On one side, Netanyahu and Barak argued that it was Israel's political leadership that bore responsibility for state security and the military and intelligence branches were to follow orders. In effect this explained the differences inside the Israeli political and defense establishments on when an attack on Iran would be absolutely necessary. Barak also explained that Israel often goes to the high security readiness for many possible operations that are never carried out. In other words, the proposal to go to 'P-plus' for a strike on Iran did not mean that it was to be launched.

The conclusion: one prime minister, Ehud Olmert opposed an Israeli air strike against Iran without a green light from Washington. His successor Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak would be ready to give the order as a last resort.

David Essing

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