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Chuck Hagel & Shimon Peres

President Shimon Peres (Photo: Amit Shabi)

 In the midst of Israel's current election campaign, two developments have caught the headlines in Israel. First, U.S. President Barack Obama's selecting of Chuck Hagel as the new U.S. Secretary of Defense and the New York Times interview with Israel's President Shimon Peres have caught the headlines in Israel. 

 The Hagel message to Middle East…

What message does President Barack Obama send to Israel and Iran by naming Chuck Hagel to be the next U.S. Defense Secretary? Obviously, that Obama is still shy of drawing on the military option to prevent Iran from producing nuclear weapons. And with Hagel moving into the Pentagon, Obama can count on his senior adviser's support in avoiding a military confrontation with Iran. Meanwhile in Tehran, that is what Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei will obviously conclude. And as a result, it also seems reasonable that the Iranians will keep moving relentlessly ahead on producing their first A-bombs. (It is a big stretch to contend that if Obama ever does decide to attack Iran it would prove justified, if even Hagel were on board.)

Chuck Hagel

So the Israeli-U.S.-Iranian showdown is set for this spring, if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wins the Jan. 22 election, as the opinion polls indicate he surely will. But what of President Shimon Peres' comment that Obama will first exhaust all his soft power first: "America knows how to throw a punch when it has to… in the end if none of this works, then President Obama will use military power against Iran. I am sure of it". The problem is that once Iran produces the Bomb it has a delivery system of ballistic rockets that put Israel in their cross-hairs whereas the eastern coast of the U.S. would still be far out of range. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962 revealed how even the all-powerful U.S. took a grave and uncompromising view of nearby nuclear missiles in the hands of a radical regime. Understandably Israeli officials, apparently on instructions from Netanyahu, have kept mum on Hagel for fear of being accused of interfering in U.S. domestic affairs. There was one exception, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin who said the Hagel nominations was 'cause for concern' – he later indicated he was speaking privately.

Despite the continual run-ins between Obama and Netanyahu, strategic cooperation between the U.S. and Israel has reached an all time high during Obama's first term. This is due not only to their joint strategic interests in the region such as confronting Iran's nuclear weapons drive but also to Defense Minister Ehud Barak's close ties with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and currently with Leon Panetta. Barak is highly respected in Washington's corridors of power and he was often dispatched by Netanyahu to smooth American feathers. With a new and less sympathetic U.S. Secretary of Defense about to take over, Netanyahu could need Barak's services more than ever. However, it is unlikely that Netanyahu could face down internal Likud opposition, even if Barak wished to carry on. (A recent poll indicated that most Israelis prefer Barak, two to one, when compared with Moshe Yaalon, the Lkiud's front runner for the defense portfolio. But if Hagel is sour on Israel, it is only natural that his sentiments will trickle down to the senior Pentagon officials who would follow their boss's lead.

Peres takes a punch at Netanyahu…

President Peres took a punch of his own at Bibi Netanyahu for 'doing nothing' in the diplomatic arena with the Palestinians. It was a foolish idea for the Prime Minister to believe 'history was a horse that can be held by the tail'. If there was no diplomatic movement, the Palestinians (West Bank) would go back to terror and most of the world would justify their actions, falsely label Israel a racist state and even suffer an economic boycott. He leveled the blame at the Likud-led government for not accepting Obama's demand for a halt to settlements. And he again differed with Netanyahu by repeating that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was an 'excellent ' negotiating partner. Peres rejected the notion that Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem have eliminated the chance for establishing a Palestinian state saying they covered only 2% of the area. The bottom line was that if the state's leadership told the people there was a chance for peace ' they would take up the gauntlet and believe it!'

With the election campaign moving into the final lap, Peres took off the gloves. On the basis of the polls, he apparently fears that after winning the election, Netanyahu will be at the mercy of the far Right members not only in the Likud but also require the more hard-line Naftali Bennett to form a coalition government. The two-state solution that was not included in the Likud-Beiteinu would be a dead letter leaving Israel in an untenable international position. (Israeli ambassadors have also expressed their concern about the impact of Israel's decisions on settlements). There is no question that Shimon Peres has overstepped his presidential powers more than any of his predecessors during an election campaign – he has made clear that in his view desperate situations require desperate actions. He was ringing an alarm bell for politicians and voters alike that we are on the deck of a Titanic headed for an iceberg.

David Essing

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