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Bibi Netanyahu (Photo: Amit Shabi)


Israel's coalition crisis drags on with Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu still unable to cobble together a new government that can command a solid majority in the 120 member Knesset. In fact, King Bibi is now facing a determined bid by two apparent heirs to his throne: Yair Lapid of 'There's A Future' and Naftali Bennett of 'Jewish Home' parties.

While Netanyahu is empowered to try and form a new government both Lapid and Bennett, who aspire to the premiership in the not too distant future, are just as determined to prove to the Israeli electorate, that they are made of the mettle that prime ministers are made of. Lapid and Bennett ran on separate tickets but they each called for a 'New Deal' of social equality and an end to the 'free lunches' for the ultra-orthodox that Netanyahu and other former leaders had granted the 'heredeem' in return for their political backing in the government. Both Lapid and Bennett won impressive gains and are determined to follow, persevere, and prevail with their campaign promises. If they do not, they will lose face with Israeli voters and sabotage any future chance of ever becoming prime minister. This is at the crux of the current standoff because Netanyahu is bent on retrieving the two ultra- orthodox parties in the cabinet. He knows full well if he pays them off, with public funding for their separate educational system and grants them exemptions from the IDF, they will support him totally in the government. His problem is he needs Bennett or Lapid for his coalition and these two party leaders are hanging tough. It looks as if Netanyahu may first have to forge a deal with his ambitious challengers and then present it to the ultra-orthodox as 'take it or leave it'! The goal would be to gradually force the ultra-orthodox to serve in the IDF and start getting jobs while slashing the public funding that has enabled some 60,000 ultra-orthodox men to dodge the draft and receive a monthly allowance to study in yeshiva seminaries. But until now, Bibi 'doesn't get it!'



Iranian missiles (photo: MEHR)

According to latest IAEA report released in Vienna on Feb.21, Iran could be within 80 kilos of enriched uranium for breaking out for its first atomic bomb!

Consider this IAEA figure: Iran has now produced some 167 kilos of 20% grade enriched uranium. Experts say that 240 - 250 kilos of this material would be required for further enriching to 90% weapons grade to make an atomic bomb or warhead and that leaves a shortage of only 70 or 80 kilos for its first nuclear weapon. Now the IAEA has indicated that Iran is installing some 180 advanced IR -2M centrifuges that can significantly increase its production of enriched uranium. (Once the difficulty in producing 20% grade uranium has been solved it is no problem to keep on enriching to 90% weapons grade).

Last September, Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly that Israel estimated that by this spring or early summer Iran would have a stockpile of enriched uranium sufficient to break out for its first nuclear bomb or warhead. Note that Iranian experts were reportedly present for the recent North Korean nuclear test that shocked the world. 

On Feb.26, world powers are set for another session with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan but don't hold your breath. The latest IAEA report indicates the 'harshest sanction yet' that were imposed on Iran last July have failed to dissuade the Iranians, as predicted by Israel.



Peace activist on the 'Marmara'

That is why the Iranian nuclear threat will be top of Netanyahu's agenda when U.S. President Barack Obama visits Israel reportedly starting on March 20th. It will be Obama's first visit since becoming president; he visited the Jewish state as a senator and presidential candidate in 2008. He is also expected to visit Ramallah where he will meet West Bank President Mahmoud Abbas as well as travelling to Egypt, Jordan Saudi Arabia and Turkey. What happens after the eventual downfall of the Assad regime as well as a jump-start for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which will also be moved to the front burner? (Bibi indicated his openness for such a move by closing a coalition agreement with Tzipi Livni to lead future Palestinian negotiations. In advance of the Obama visit, secret contacts are already underway between Israel and Turkey. Relations between these two former allies went into a tail-spin on May 31, 2010 when Israeli naval commandos boarded the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, which tried to break Israel's blockade of Gaza. Nine Turkish militants were killed in the bloody encounter while a number of Israelis were stabbed and wounded in the melee. According to a Turkish newspaper, foreign ministry sources in Ankara have not denied the possibility of a back channel dialogue with Jerusalem. Israeli sources were also quoted as linking the contacts with Obama's upcoming tour. Israel and Turkey are two of America's closest allies in the Middle East and Washington is obviously eager to get relations between Israel and Turkey back on tract. The crisis in Syria and the Iranian nuclear threat also induce Ankara and Jerusalem to patch up their differences.

According to the Turkish account, Turkey might give up its demand that Israel lift the blockade of Gaza. In return, Israel would pay compensation to the families of the nine Turks who were killed and also express regret for its operational 'flaws'. The report also quoted Turkish diplomatic sources as saying the fact that Avigdor Lieberman was not Israel's foreign minister at present (due to his legal prosecution) would facilitate the rapprochement. During a former reconciliation attempt, Lieberman had categorically opposed an Israeli apology contending that Turkey was to blame for sending a flotilla to break the blockade aimed at preventing rockets and weapons being shipped into Gaza for more attacks on Israel.



Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

As for the Palestinians on the West Bank, they have started a campaign of rock throwing demonstrations. It started as a show of solidarity for four Palestinian prisoners who have been on a hunger strike but it could also be to highlight the situation in advance of the Obama visit. Another factor could be the deteriorating economy. President Mahmoud Abbas has opposed any renewal of terror against Israel but he has publicly supported what he terms 'popular resistance', that is public protests. IDF troops and Border Guards are responding with tear gas and rubber bullets. Although there have been casualties on both sides no one has been killed. But obviously this is a dangerous situation that could turn into a full- fledged intifada.

Dan Meridor, the Likud cabinet minister who holds the Intelligence Services portfolio, has warned: "The reality is knocking at Israel's door! It is an illusion to think the present situation can be ignored and Israel's new government should see if it can be changed with an interim or permanent agreement with the Palestinians".

David Essing

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