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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - February 5, 2007

This week's Q's are on the impact to the Olmert government of former Justice Minister Haim Ramon's conviction, and the impact of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.

Q. The conviction of former Justice Minister Haim Ramon of sexual misconduct has reportedly opened the way to a reshuffle within the Olmert government. What is likely to happen?

A. The composition and possibly even stability of the Olmert government is now affected at three political levels (as well as a few testosterone levels), with corresponding scenarios for a possible redistribution of portfolios or even rearrangement of the coalition.

At the most mundane and least threatening level, Olmert is now free to appoint a new justice minister. Until now he had left the portfolio in temporary hands (Meir Sheetrit, Tzipi Livni) pending the court's decision regarding the charge that Ramon forced a French kiss upon a young woman IDF officer in his office last July 12, the day the Lebanon war broke out. Olmert is also under pressure from a suit brought before the High Court of Justice to appoint a welfare minister, a post left open back in the days of PM Ariel Sharon in the hope a small ultra-orthodox party would join the coalition. That party, Torah Judaism, has continued to chair the important Knesset Finance Committee since Sharon's time, also on the assumption that this was a down payment on its joining the coalition. Olmert is apparently now ready to conclude that Torah Judaism is not a candidate for his coalition and to divide up the spoils accordingly.

Then there is the science, sport and culture portfolio left open when Labor's Ophir Pines-Paz resigned in protest over Avigdor Lieberman's entry into the coalition. Labor leader and Minister of Defense Amir Peretz, who needs Arab votes to win the Labor leadership primary in May, wants to give it to Ghaleb Majadleh, Israel's first Muslim Arab minister, whom Olmert has thus far accepted only as a minister without portfolio. Finally, Olmert "owes" Yisrael Beiteinu party head Avigdor Lieberman at least one additional portfolio and this could be the opportunity to pay that political debt. However, Labor has a long-standing claim to the welfare portfolio.

If Olmert appoints a sitting minister to one of the vacant seats, this could mandate some additional political juggling. But the candidate initially slotted for the justice post, Interior Minister Roni Bar-On (Kadima), barely escaped prosecution for influence peddling when he was a candidate for attorney general back when Binyamin Netanyahu was prime minister. Precisely because of Bar-On's spotty record and in view of the multiplicity of corruption charges haunting key political figures today, most observers believe Olmert will reach outside politics and appoint a new justice minister with a distinguished academic or professional record. Bar-On appears to have gotten the hint: on Feb. 4 he withdrew his candidacy.

But Olmert is also known to harbor ambitions for a more sweeping Cabinet shake-up that would replace Peretz as defense minister with Labor's Ehud Barak, who is currently not a member of Knesset. Olmert now appears to understand that appointing the inexperienced Peretz to the defense job last May was a major mistake, one that could cost him his premiership if the Winograd Commission chooses to blame both the prime minister and the defense minister for the mistakes of last summer's war. With Barak in the Ministry of Defense, Olmert apparently believes that his own approval ratings will rise. He would also like to help Barak win the Labor party leadership primary this coming May by installing him now in the defense post.

But Peretz won't go quietly, and refuses to be tempted by some combination of social portfolios built around the welfare post that Olmert's advisers have tried to put together. Olmert could fire Peretz and hope that Labor would absorb the blow and remain in the coalition; he could even risk Labor leaving the coalition and plan to soldier on for a few months with the other coalition partners, in the hope that Peretz would lose the primaries and Labor would then return to the coalition fold. But these are risky scenarios.

Finally, there are the threats to Olmert himself and his coalition that could emerge from the major decision points ahead: the Winograd Commission's interim recommendations (due in about a month), the May Labor primaries and the pending corruption charges against the prime minister himself. If Olmert resigns due to responsibility assigned him for the war, because of criminal charges or under cumulative public pressure that draws on both issues, the stability of the entire coalition could come into question. Kadima would be hard put to produce an alternative candidate for prime minister who could keep the coalition together and fend off attempts by opposition leader Netanyahu to put together an alternative, right/religious coalition.

Were Olmert to resign, the most likely candidates to replace him are Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Livni, who has as much as declared her candidacy already, and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who served as minister of defense under Sharon. A third, dark horse candidate could be the veteran Shimon Peres, who could argue that he has precisely the experience and political maturity that Olmert and the other potential successors lack.

Unless by that time Peres has been elected president--a job he covets but will compete for only if guaranteed the open rather than secret Knesset ballot that he believes would prevent the kind of back-room deals that led to the election of Moshe Katzav over him some six years ago. But the date of presidential elections is likely to depend on Katzav's resignation, and that in turn is linked to the attorney general's decision, expected in two or three months, to render official the seemingly open-and-shut rape and molestation charges against him.

Did I already mention testosterone levels and their ramifications for Israeli politics?

Q. French President Jacques Chirac made a controversial comment last week, to the effect that Iran could obtain a nuclear weapon or two without this affecting the global or Middle East regional nuclear balance, because it would be deterred from using the weapon. Is this a realistic scenario?

A. This is the same Jacques Chirac who, just over a year ago, publicly threatened to retaliate with French nuclear weapons if an unspecified country (generally understood to be Iran or Syria) carried out or aided an act of mega-terrorism on French soil. His pronouncements over the past year or two are often met with derision and embarrassment by French officials, who drop hints about illness and over-medication.

Still, it definitely is realistic to suppose that the international community would at some juncture decide to acquiesce in the existence of an Iranian military nuclear option. A number of informed observers speculated that Chirac's comment, while politically incorrect, reflects the thinking of many actors on the international scene. Even Israel's prestigious Institute for National Security Studies (formerly the Jaffee Center) weighed in this week with an assessment that a nuclear Iran would at least initially seek to maintain nuclear opacity, Israel-style, would behave rationally and would not hand over a nuclear device to terrorists.

But whether in the long term Iran would be deterred from using a nuclear weapon or threatening Israel with it is a separate issue. Moreover, it is safe to assume that even an opaquely nuclear Iran would have and use its nuclear clout to seek regional hegemony, try to radicalize Arab regimes and work against Arab-Israel peace. The response of some Arab countries would be to seek and develop their own nuclear option, thereby fueling a regional nuclear arms race. Some, like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, have already begun. How long could the Middle East avoid conflict under these conditions?

Here two earlier instances of third world states going nuclear are instructive.

First, North Korea has succeeded in developing and even testing a military nuclear capability and is generally understood to possess several nuclear weapons and suitable missile delivery systems. It registered this achievement despite a wide range of international efforts and even threats to stop it. Its success has undoubtedly encouraged Iran to persist with its own efforts. But North Korea differs from Iran in that it does not threaten or openly target any of its neighbors. It is understood to have sought a nuclear option and missile capability for purposes of defense and (at least with regard to its missile know-how and products) commerce.

Second, Pakistan, a Muslim state that has stationed troops in Arab countries and whose air force has directly aided Arab air forces during wars with Israel, has also developed a military nuclear option. Here international pressures were minimal. Nor did Israel ever openly object to Pakistan's nuclear program, essentially because at an early stage in its development Islamabad made clear to Jerusalem (the two countries have engaged in informal contacts over the years) that it had no hostile intentions toward Israel and sought nuclear weaponry solely in order to balance the threat it perceived from India.

Only in recent years has it become known that the head of the Pakistani nuclear program, A. Q. Khan, was for a time peddling the country's nuclear secrets to a host of other countries, including Iran and Libya. How Israel would have reacted had it been aware in real time of this Pakistani assistance to countries it considered its enemies makes for interesting speculation.

Both North Korea and Pakistan are generally thought to have rational national security decision-makers at the helm and to be deterrable. Nor do they use their nuclear capabilities to leverage regional influence. If Israel and the United States could be persuaded by Iran that it seeks a nuclear capability strictly for defensive purposes, this would undoubtedly reduce the likelihood of preemption on their part. In recent weeks we have witnessed an inclination among Iran's religious leaders and in the Iranian parliament and media to constrain President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad from threatening Israel and to shorten his term of office. This is a start. It appears to reflect recognition on Iran's part that its policies are liable to provoke preemption.

Finally, speculation that Iran might in the end behave as a responsible nuclear power also reflects doubts regarding the sheer military feasibility of eliminating the Iranian nuclear program by attack from the air, along with the regionally destabilizing effect of an attack that provokes extensive Iranian retaliation. In other words, if preemption cannot work or could be counterproductive, then all of the alternatives have to be seriously considered. But even if, in a best-case scenario, Iran's nuclear program ceases to constitute a direct and immediate threat to Israel, Iran's regional hegemonic policies and support for Islamist terrorist groups will continue to threaten Israel and its neighbors.