JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's frenetic politicking over the last week appears aimed at one thing: strengthening his ability to take on Iran.
Only days after announcing the surprise dissolution of his government and early elections, on Tuesday Netanyahu presented his compatriots with a second shocker: He cancelled elections and announced a strengthened parliamentary coalition, bolstered by unification with the opposition Kadima party.
This new union means Netanyahu will control more than 90 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, known as the Knesset. The new majority is unprecedented in modern times. Former army chief of staff and Kadima’s newly-elected leader, Shaul Mofaz, will join as deputy prime minister. The center-right Kadima party adds heft to Netanyahu's mandate at a time of urgently polemical debate in Israel over Iran's nuclear program.
Netanyahu’s political jockeying provoked an immediate and strong reaction in Israel.
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Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovitch, who will benefit politically if, as expected, she is now named opposition leader, said: "This ugly maneuver is going to be taught in universities for a long, long time."
Israel’s Occupy-style protest movement, meanwhile, announced a series of demonstrations to call for political reform this coming weekend. The main question occupying Israel's punditry even after this second twist remains the same: Is Netanyahu acting to strengthen his hand if he decides to strike Iran before the American elections in November?
Ari Shavit, a top political analyst at the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, who is known for his contacts in circles close to Netanyahu, told GlobalPost that the prime minister has been intent on early elections for at least a few months, for one principal reason that will not please Washington.
"Netanyahu designed to have early elections in Israel so they preempt the American elections in November and give him time to bring the Iranian nuclear crisis to a climax in autumn, in the two months between the Israeli elections and the Americans'," he said.
Netanyahu’s decision to then abandon early elections in favor of a broader coalition appears aimed at that same result. “Netanyahu suddenly understood that the Likud" — Netanyahu's party — "could easily split to the right, in which case, even if re-elected, he would not have the mandate he needs,” Shavit said. “Instead of an election preparing the ground for a confrontation, now he has unity preparing the ground for confrontation."
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The Israeli leader has long argued that a pre-emptive strike on Iranian facilities may be the only way to prevent Iran from developing nuclear-weapons capability.
But opposition from European leaders and US President Barack Obama, who supports a diplomatic approach, and from a growing chorus of former Israeli military commanders who argue that a unilateral strike would only delay, not halt, Iranian ambitions, have weakened the prime minister’s position.
Netanyahu's logic seems to hold that if Obama is re-elected in November, he will no longer have to worry about domestic politics and will be able to press Netanyahu on Iran and the question of peace talks with the Palestinians — an area Netanyahu is eager to keep out of the international spotlight.
"The Iranian reason remains Netanyahu's motivation," Shavit said. "The difference is that now the season is shortened. He does not have to wait until the election on Sept. 4 before bringing the Iranian issue to a head. He can act now."
Chanan Kristal, a political analyst for Israel Radio, had a somewhat different take. He said that two possibilities exist that can explain Netanyahu's actions — but agreed that the move was driven by Iran.
"Either [Netanyahu] needs [new Deputy Prime Minister] Mofaz in his government in order to justify postponing any action against Iran, or he needs Mofaz inside so as to provide legitimacy for when he does attack Iran. Mofaz has so far come out against an attack, but it remains clear that those making the decision will be Netanyahu and Defense Minister [Ehud] Barak. For now, all bets are off."
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Shavit warned that anyone interested in preventing a conflict with Iran, such as the United States, will need to act swiftly to find a political solution.
"Otherwise there is a risk by the end of summer, we'll find ourselves in a dire situation," he said.
At the joint press conference announcing his union with Kadima and Mofaz, Netanyahu appeared to be peeved at much of the sniping he has recently faced by a growing list of former military and intelligence leaders expressing doubts about his Iran policy. He seemed especially put off by Yuval Diskin, the former head of Israel's internal security agency and an apolitical figure respected across the board, who last week took the criticism farther than most.
"My major problem is that I have no faith in the current leadership, which must lead us in an event on the scale of war with Iran or a regional war," he said. "I don't believe in either the prime minister or the defense minister. I don't believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings."
The implication that Netanyahu and Barak are not competent to make decisions on matters of national security, specifically regarding Iran, ricocheted loudly across the political universe and clearly remained on Netanyahu's mind today as he repeatedly stressed the "sanity" of his government and said: "I have even been referred to as messianic. Yes, messianic."