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Prospects & Perils On Israel's Foreign Policy Agenda

Prime Minister Olmert: 'Sanctions Are Having An Impact On Iran - Iranians Are Not As Advanced On Their Nuclear Program As They Contend'

'New Music From Arab World On Recognizing Israel'

As Israel's Independence Day draws near, the Jewish state faces a range of evolving prospects and dangers. At the same time, if Prime minister Ehud Olmert survives the Winograd Commission into the Second Lebanon War, he will have likely have new defense and finance ministers at his side. IsraCast analyzes the current situation and the domestic political scene and possibly some dramatic changes.

Is Israel approaching a new crossroads in the Middle East? Traditional Sunni Muslim regimes fearing the rise of a radical Shiite Iran, armed with nuclear weapons, now realize that Israel is not the main threat in the future. That was the message conveyed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to the Knesset Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee this week. The question is how should Israel explore what could be an historic opportunity to finally resolve the conflict with the Arab world. The recent Arab initiative adopted in Riyadh, though problematic in its demand for a total Israeli to the former lines of 1967 and the so-called right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel, is now a subject of debate on Israel's agenda. In addition, not a week passes without Syria's President Bashar Assad offering peace talks if not, war is his other option. In Amman, Jordan's King Abdullah II hosted Israeli Knesset members saying: 'We are in the same boat; we have the same enemies. Do you want Iran to be on the shores of the Jordan'.

There are signs that for the first time of what appears to be a serious pan-Arab move to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state - this in total contrast to Iran's threat to wipe Israel off the Middle East map. The Arab price-tag is clear - an Israeli withdrawal from nearly all of the West Bank and the Golan Heights. How should Israel respond to this new development emerging in the shadow of a nuclear armed Iran and a U.S. evacuation of Iraq possibly leaving chaos and regional uncertainty in its wake?

There is a second relevant question? Is the current Israeli leadership capable of conducting a serious peace initiative at this time? It is a foregone conclusion that after the Palestinians elected a Hamas-led government there is no viable Palestinian partner on the other side. Former Palestinian Foreign Minister A-Zahar has just stated the Hamas position loud and clear 'the Koran forbids negotiating with Israel'. And he added that Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has been authorized to conduct contacts with Israel for tactical reasons. In other words, Abbas of Fatah is the Hamas front man who is trying to rescind the international boycott that has severed financial aid to the terrorist-led authority.On the other hand, Olmert is now on tenterhooks awaiting the outcome of the Winograd commission findings on his role in the Second Lebanon War. Even if Olmert is let off the hook, how can a prime minister with a 3% performance rating conduct a credible peace initiative? Olmert is known to have carried out a back door channel to Saudi officials but his room for maneuver is limited.

PM Ehud Olmert

The Winograd Commission's findings are not legally binding so even if it criticizes Olmert's conduct of the war, the prime minister will not be legally obligated to resign. If Prof. Yehezkel Dror, a panel member has his way, it may not recommend Olmert's resignation. Channel 10 has reported that several days before the Prime Minister appointed members of the commission, Dror submitted a document to the PM's office contending that the findings should deal with systematic rather than personal conclusions. Olmert has defended his handling of the war saying he accepted the opinion of the highly rated IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and that the entire cabinet and the Knesset supported his response to the Hezbollah provocation. Although Defense Minister Peretz has gone on record saying he would comply with a commission recommendation that he resign, Olmert has given no such commitment.

But whether Olmert remains in office or not, much will depend on what transpires in Labor, his main coalition partner. The race for its leadership is heating up - some 100,000 Laborites are eligible to vote s in the May 28th primary. Even if the incumbent Defense Minister Amir Peretz survives Winograd, the polls show him trailing Ami Ayalon and former prime minister Ehud Barak. Peretz, the former trade union boss, has been busy at what he excels at - mobilizing Histadrut members to vote for him. But if the polls are correct either Barak or Ayalon will become new party leader. What impact would either of them make on Labor?

Ehud Barak

Ehud Barak kicked off his public campaign by addressing a ceremony for fallen soldiers at a military academy in Haifa. After lauding former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz, who was forced to resign by public pressure, Barak said: 'Amir Peretz is a talented man ; Ehud Olmert is a talented man'. By using precisely the same language, Barak linked Olmert with Peretz, who is widely considered to be an utter failure as defense minister. But then after playing ' Mark Anthony' with his sparse words of praise, Barak contended that all three had failed in their conduct of the war because they lacked the appropriate experience. This was also a pot-shot at his Labor rival Ami Ayalon who has never served in the cabinet, let alone as prime minister. This theme of experience will obviously be Barak's trump card in the upcoming Labor primary. The former prime minister has also received the backing of a number of influential Laborites such as cabinet ministers Yitzhak Herzog, Shalom Simchon, and Binyamin Ben Eliezer as well as Matan Vilnayie, Beiga Shochat and Moshe Shachal.

Ami Ayalon

Ami Ayalon counters by charging that Barak flopped as prime minister leading Labor to a devastating election defeat against Ariel Sharon of the Likud. Ayalon, like Barak has a superb security record and he has started sniping at Barak for abandoning public service and making a small fortune in private life by by lecturing and acting as a security advisor in the U.S. and elsewhere. Both Barak and Ayalon are former kibbutz members but Ayalon says only he has remained true to idealistic values. For many Israelis in and out of Labor, personal integrity is a key consideration, not that Barak has ever been tarnished by personal corruption.

As for his lack of experience in government, Ayalon attacks Barak's past performance saying: 'I have grave doubts about the political understanding of a statesman who thinks that a unilateral approach is a solution'. This refers to Barak's decision to unilaterally evacuate IDF troops from the south Lebanon security zone, a step that enabled Hezbollah to move down to the Israeli border and set the stage for the Second Lebanon War. On the other hand, Barak can contend time has vindicated his program for a Palestinian settlement that he presented at Camp David to Arafat and US President Bill Clinton. It was based on a the two state solution involving an Israeli withdrawal behind the West Bank security fence and power sharing in Jerusalem. On this score, Barak is open to charges that his arrogant approach took him too fast, too far. In his Haifa speech, Barak repeated his policy of separation with the Palestinians: 'They're there, and we're here!'

Ayalon, who teamed up with Palestinian dove Dr. Sari Nuseibe as an Israeli-Palestinian team to muster public support on both sides for a peace agreement. In an attempt to alter his dovish image, Ayalon is trying to get his political message across. Interviewed by Haaretz Ayalon said: 'The Palestinians will hold presidential and parliamentary elections in the second half of 2009. The Palestinians' time of decision will be in those elections. Will the Palestinians decide to elect a leader who is talking about two states for two nations and about an agreement, or one who talks about terrorism and a single Palestinian state? .... Until then, there must be no withdrawal anywhere'. Ayalon insists that the focus must be on the principles of a permanent agreement - this sounds similar to Barak's approach. And Ayalon adds: 'My red lines are total opposition to the return of the Palestinian refugees and preservation of the large settlement blocs'.

If elected party leader, will Barak or Ayalon keep Labor in the Olmert lead coalition? Both of the leading candidates are noncommittal indicating that it will depend on developments and the alternatives.

But whether or not Israel's political and military leadership is in for a shake-up, the powers that be will have to move cautiously when it comes to conducting contacts with the Palestinians, Syria and the Arab League with its Riyadh initiative. There may be some new opportunities on Israel's political horizon but they are accompanied by dangers as well. On the Palestinian track, Hamas is still calling the shots with its long-run goal of destroying the Jewish state. In the Gaza Strip, which was totally evacuated by Israel, the Palestinians are busy smuggling in weapons and building fortifications similar to the former Hezbollah strongholds in south Lebanon. In the north, Hezbollah is also regrouping after the Second Lebanon War with a steady inflow of rockets from Syria and Iran. Syria itself is preparing for war with its military buildup despite President Bashar Assad's offer to negotiate (on his terms). Iran continues on its course to acquire 'the bomb' and it's still an open question as to whether international sanctions will succeed in deterring President Ahmadinejad. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert now says the sanctions are having an impact on Tehran and the Iranians are not as advanced in their nuclear plans as they contend. Finally there is the Riyadh initiative - with a positive readiness to accept Israel but with conditions that threaten the very existence of the Jewish state. An Israeli miscalculation on any of these tracks could have dire consequences and pose crucial challenges for Israel's leaders.

Meanwhile, public opinion polls indicate that most Israelis support opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu of the Likud for their prime minister. Likud MK Silvan Shalom has said that if the Winograd Commission does its job its findings will bring about the fall of the government and an early election. The Olmert government suffered has suffered another blow - a financial corruption investigation has forced Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson to take a leave of absence. So, within the near future Israel will likely have a new finance minister, possibly Haim Ramon and a new defense minister - either Ehud Barak or Ami Ayalon.

David Essing

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