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IRAN & NETANYAHU'S COALITION CAPERS

Air strike on Iran's nuclear sites or Iranian A-bomb?

Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 in Almaty, Khazakstan

Almaty, Khazakhstan has now joined the list of exotic venues for the Great Power negotiations with Iran - aside from that nothing else has changed. The Iranians continued to string along the P5 +1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, as they did so skillfully in Geneva, Istanbul, Moscow and Baghdad. The scene may shift but the Iranian nuclear negotiators always stick to their two-step routine - one step forward and one step back.

Iran's Supreme National Security Council Secretary and chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili with Catharine Ashton, the EU's Foreign Minister

 Again, a hapless Catharine Ashton, the EU's 'foreign minister' hoped for a 'positive response' to what amounted to a climb-down on an earlier demand that Iran halt its enrichment of 20% grade uranium, just a step away from weapons grade. Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief delegate led Ashton and her colleagues on a merry chase before flying back to Tehran; he concluded that the P5+1 had offered a "more realistic and logical' approach… they have come to the conclusion they must change their outlook". Not only would Iran insist on producing 20% enriched uranium it would also refuse to close down its new Fordow enrichment plant that is built inside a mountain to protect it from attack.

 So while the negotiators continued to jaw-jaw in Almaty and new U.S. Secretary of State called on Tehran to take 'constructive steps', it is fair to say the Iranians are constructive alright, but in the opposite direction. In fact, they have added a 'Plan B' which is a second track for closing in on nuclear weapons from a new direction.

Iran to use new and improved centrifuges in its uranium enrichment

 Consider this: The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna estimates the Iranians have been quietly building their stockpile of 20% enriched uranium and lack only some 80 kilos that would enable them to further enrich to 90% weapons grade for producing their first nuclear weapon. Moreover the Iranians are installing new more sophisticated centrifuges that could 'significantly' increase their production of enriched uranium. 

 On Feb.26, Britain's Daily Telegraph reported that Iran is also activating a plutonium option for developing nuclear weapons. Satellite photos revealed that Iran's heavy water production plant at Arak has now gone operational providing a 'Plan B' for developing A-bombs. Heavy water is needed to operate a nuclear reactor that can produce plutonium, which could then be used to make a (nuclear) bomb. If the heavy-water plant reaches full capacity, it would reach 20 lb. of plutonium annually, enough for two nuclear warheads.      

 Iran & North Korea: Unconfirmed reports have surmised that Iranian experts participated in North Korea's latest nuclear weapons test on Feb.12th. The New York Times has quoted one senior American official stating that "It's very possible that the North Koreans are testing for two countries". In 2007, North Korea was detected secretly building a nuclear reactor at Deir ez-Zor in Syria for President Bashar Assad which was subsequently bombed and destroyed reportedly by Israeli aircraft. Despite the impact of international sanctions on the Iranian economy, Tehran has huge foreign currency reserves from its immense oil sales over the years and can easily pay hard-up North Korea for its nuclear weapons know-how. 

 When adding up all these factors, with suspected warhead research being conducted at the secret Parchin site, you don't have to be a nuclear scientist to conclude the Iranians are working hard on various fronts to break out for the Bomb when they deem fit. Like Pyongyang, Tehran also views a nuclear arsenal as an insurance policy for preserving the regime from any external threat and as a lever for promoting its regional ambitions. International sanctions have proved to be an abject failure in halting North Korea's costly nuclear weapons program despite the impoverished population. Israeli leaders from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on down are of a similar mind – only military sanctions can stop Iran.

 Prognosis: Although the Arab Spring was actually preceded by the massive public protests in Tehran after the rigged election in 2009, it has failed to topple the radical reign of the ayatollahs. Nor is there any sign the regime has loosened its iron grip on the country. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini and his cohorts are as bent as ever on building A-bombs. So it's now a race against time, and what happens first? A mushroom cloud spiraling over an Iranian test-site that will mark the advent of Iranian A-bombs, or a pre-emptive military strike to knock out Iran's nuclear capability? After the latest futile round in Almaty, the Ayatollahs will reckon they have nothing to fear. In any case, Istanbul is back on the itinerary for low level experts on March 17 while the chief delegates are expected to fly back to Almaty in April. But if past results are any indication of future actions, they will all be spinning their wheels again while Iran's centrifuges keep spinning out more enriched uranium. Before then, U.S. President Barack Obama will make a long over-due visit to Jerusalem where Israelis will be eager to learn if he has any new arrows in his quiver, aside from 'all the options are on the table'.

 

Coalition Conundrum

Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo: Amit Shabi)

 Will President Obama still fly to Israel if Netanyahu has failed to form a new coalition government? Bibi failed to cobble together a coalition of 61 members in the new 120 member Knesset during his first 28 day allotment and had to request another 14 days from State President Shimon Peres. The problem is that Netanyahu needs either Yair Lapid or Naftali Bennett to bring their parties into the coalition but they have joined forces in demanding that the ultra-orthodox men also serve in the IDF and get jobs like other Israelis. However, Netanyahu is loath to sever his ties with the heredeem, which became a key issue in the recent election. In return for finagling their draft exemptions and granting them monthly allowances while they study in religious seminaries, the ultra-orthodox grant him their political support in the coalition. Netanyahu's chief spokesman David Shimron has castigated Lapid and Bennett for boycotting the ultra-orthodox saying: "Even if the Haradeem got their IDF call up orders at Bar Mitzvah and served in the IDF at age fourteen, Lapid would still bar them from the coalition!" So why would Netanyahu escalate the rhetoric against Lapid if he actually wants Lapid's 19 Knesset members in his coalition? On the surface, it doesn't make political sense. But there might be a more subtle explanation. Netanyahu realizes that without Bennett or Lapid he can only muster fifty-five seats, six short of a majority. At present, only Livni's 6 MKs have officially joined for a grand total of only 37 seats. Could it be that Bibi is showing the ultra-orthodox he is truly pressuring Bennett and Lapid but if they stand firm, he will have no alternative but to accept their terms and agree that the ultra-orthodox also serve and go to work?

 IDF Chief Of Staff Benny Gantz Weighs In…

Benny Ganz, IDF Chief of General Staff

 The ultra-orthodox have long argued that they also defend Israel by prayer and religious study. Moreover, they contend the Israel Defense Forces doesn't really need or want them because of their religious way of life. IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz set the record straight: "It is important that everyone living in the state of Israel should be recruited for military service regardless of religion, sector or sex". Now it is true that some 1500 ultra-orthodox men serve in the IDF, but they are a drop in the ocean. An estimated 60,000 of them are of military age and have dodged the draft because of a law that the Supreme Court of Israel has repealed as being undemocratic. At the same time, the so-called 'knitted skullcaps', (those religious Israelis who) also work to support their families, have actually become a pillar of service in the IDF. For its part, the IDF follows strict kosher rules, including observance of the Sabbath to enable religious Jews to both serve in the army and maintain their religious way of life. With regard to the ultra-orthodox, perhaps an apt solution would be to set up a separate IDF base that would be totally off-limits to female officers and soldiers. Ultra-orthodox officers would run the base according to strict religious practice. This would counter another ultra-orthodox contention that their young men might lose their 'fear of heaven!' if they are not always in a strict religious environment. In any case, both Lapid and Bennett are hanging tough and signaling 'the party is over' for Bibi's unholy alliance with the ultra-orthodox. In fact, the latest poll shows that Lapid's party would soar from 19 to 31 seats in a new election, while Netanyahu would slide further from 31 to 26! This is another reason why Bibi will think twice about not cutting a deal with Bennett or Lapid and being eventually forced to run in another election. 

 Getting back to Gantz…

 Addressing the Rosh Ha'ayin high-school where his kids study, the IDF's top soldier said he did not anticipate a new intifada in Judea & Samaria, the West Bank. In fact, things appear to be cooling down after some recent wide-spread rioting. No matter what, the IDF was prepared to meet any contingency. As for the Palestinian terrorists in Gaza who recently launched a powerful GRAD missile into Israel, Gantz knew who they were and had taken action to prevent a repetition. The missile landed harmlessly near the town of Ashkelon. In fact, it was aimed at the big power station there (that actually supplies electricity to the Palestinians in Gaza!). And here again, the IDF was prepared to cope with any additional rocketing, but Gen. Gantz did not rule out more confrontations in the future. 

David Essing

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