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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - May 7, 2012

Alpher discusses what the significance is of PM Binyamin Netanyahu's decision to hold elections in early September, and of the move to disband the outgoing Knesset immediately, what are the chances that the parties of the center-left could displace Netanyahu or force the Likud into a more moderate coalition, whether  the prospect of elections rules out a preventive Israeli attack on Iran in the coming months and what are the ramifications for Egyptian-Israeli peace and for Israel's energy economy of Egypt cancelling its commercial contract to deliver natural gas to Israel.
Q. What is the significance of PM Binyamin Netanyahu's decision to hold elections in early September, and of the move to disband the outgoing Knesset immediately?

 A. Having decided on elections, Netanyahu has maneuvered skillfully to hold them as early as possible so as to catch other parties and their leaders less prepared. He is recruiting the necessary votes from the other parties for a September 4 election date by making deals from a position of relative strength. Thus, for example, Likud will lend a hand to disbanding the Knesset early this week so as to keep Yisrael Beitenu from introducing legislation regarding universal military or alternative service, thereby guaranteeing the votes of the ultra-orthodox in favor of an early election date.

The writing on the wall regarding Netanyahu's intentions should have been clear when he initiated a seemingly premature Likud leadership primary last February. At the time, Kadima responded with its leadership primary and Yair Lapid began planning his political debut. Anyone else who claims to be surprised at these developments is apparently unaware that Netanyahu has become a very skillful political manipulator.



Q. With Knesset elections barely four months away, what are the chances that the parties of the center-left could displace Netanyahu or force the Likud into a more moderate coalition?

A. As Israel moves into elections, the polls give the Likud around 30 mandates--a few more than it currently has--making it the odds-on favorite to be called upon to form a government after elections. The leading center-left party is Labor, with around 18, followed by a limping Kadima under new leader Shaul Mofaz with about 10, a new centrist party under Yair Lapid with 8, and Meretz with 5 or 6. Of these, all except Meretz indicate at least a theoretical readiness to enter the next Netanyahu government.

Were these three--Labor, Kadima and Lapid's party, Yesh Atid (There is a Future)--to form a joint center-left list, they might conceivably be able to come out on top in the elections and form the government. Netanyahu's awareness of this possibility, however remote, reportedly caused him recently to discuss with Yisrael Beitenu's Avigdor Lieberman the possibility of Yisrael Beitenu and Likud running on a joint list that would be virtually certain to outpoll a joint center-left list.

Yet, given the personalities and political egos in question on the center-left--Mofaz, Tzipi Livni, Shelly Yechimovich of Labor, and Lapid--this is very doubtful. Last Tuesday, Mofaz had to stand by while Livni resigned from the Knesset and Lapid formally announced formation of his party amid the slick fanfare characteristic of the veteran TV personality. Since taking over Kadima, Mofaz has witnessed a quick drop in its popularity ratings, with residual sympathy for Livni constituting just one of his problems. The latter announced that she is not leaving public life, but no one knows her intentions.


The bottom line, at this very early juncture, is that a victorious Netanyahu could conceivably, should he so desire, form a more moderate coalition than the current one by co-opting one or more parties from the center-left. If indeed, as I have long speculated in these virtual pages, Netanyahu's primary motive for calling early elections is to nail down a new mandate in anticipation of heavy pressure from a reelected Obama on the Palestinian and Iran issues, he might consider such an option.

Q. Does the prospect of elections rule out a preventive Israeli attack on Iran in the coming months?

 A. It certainly stacks the odds against such an attack, but it doesn't rule one out.

A logical analysis of the current state of affairs regarding the Israel-Iran confrontation points to ample reasons for the Netanyahu-Barak leadership duo to avoid an attack in the coming months. An international negotiating effort with Iran is underway and sanctions are biting. A growing number of recently retired and even serving security chiefs are speaking out against a precipitate attack. A majority of the Israeli public opposes a unilateral Israeli effort. A failed attack, or even a successful one with heavy losses, could cost Netanyahu and the Likud the elections.

Nevertheless, there are two possible circumstances in which an attack could conceivably take place. In one instance, Netanyahu could take a leaf from Menachem Begin, who in June 1981 launched Israel's famous air strike against the Iraqi nuclear reactor Osirak just days before elections. The attack succeeded. It quickly became known that Begin's electoral rival, Shimon Peres, had opposed it. Begin won the elections.

True, Iraq was at war, is relatively close to Israel, and had concentrated its entire nuclear program in a single, targetable reactor; Iran does not share any of these characteristics. And Netanyahu seemingly has nothing to fear in these elections, although potential future coalition partners like Kadima might oppose an attack. But the precedent is intriguing. Lest we forget, the recent criticism of Netanyahu and Barak by former security chiefs must be understood as pointing to a strong irrational or "messianic" streak in their thinking about Iran, as reflected in Netanyahu's frequent Holocaust comparisons.

A second possibility that has begun to be discussed is that a victorious Netanyahu would exploit the months of September and October--when he heads a caretaker government while negotiating formation of a new coalition--to launch a preventive attack on Iran's nuclear project. Here the logic is that, during this period, Netanyahu would be free of serious pressures both from US President Barack Obama, who would be neutralized by the exigencies of a hard election fight against Mitt Romney, and from either outgoing or incoming coalition partners. He would have to overcome a serious constitutional objection--transition governments are not supposed to take far-reaching initiatives--but would do so by citing Holocaust-like dangers.

Neither scenario is likely. Either is conceivable.

Q. Egypt has cancelled its commercial contract to deliver natural gas to Israel. What are the ramifications for Egyptian-Israeli peace and for Israel's energy economy?

A. The story behind the signing of this contract seven years ago is full of Byzantine twists and turns between the Egyptian and Israeli leaderships of the day as well as, almost certainly, generous bribes. The deal, reached between private commercial interests but shepherded by the two governments and heralded in Israel as an important step toward normalization, provided for Egypt to deliver to Israel 40 percent of the latter's natural gas needs and helped move the Israeli energy economy to greater reliance on gas rather than coal and oil, which are far less environmentally friendly.

Because the deal also offered Israel attractively low gas prices, indeed, because it was with Israel, it was targeted almost from the outset of the Egyptian revolution in early 2011 as a vestige of Mubarak-era corruption and cronyism. Many observers, as well as the Israeli energy company involved, viewed last week's cancellation of the contract as a harbinger of worse things to come in Israel's relations with Egypt, once the Muslim Brotherhood takes power. In contrast, the Netanyahu government, Egypt's military rulers and the Egyptian commercial side of the gas deal all insisted publicly that this was merely a business issue: a dispute over Israeli payments owed to Egypt and an attempt to renegotiate the price of the gas. Efforts were immediately engaged to hasten negotiations over a new contract.

The strategic backdrop to the gas cancellation is equally tumultuous. The bad news is that Egypt has not exported gas to Israel virtually since the revolution began due to some 14 sabotage attacks by radicalized Sinai Bedouin on the delivery pipeline. Egypt's military rulers have proven incapable of or uninterested in securing the pipeline and restoring Sinai security in general.  (Jordan too has suffered, since the pipeline services its needs as well.)

The good news is that within a year, enough gas to fill all of Israel's needs will start flowing from the Tamar field in the Mediterranean, and within three years or so Israel will become a net natural gas exporter. In this regard, Israel needs a renewal of the gas flow from Egypt more for strategic reasons, as a reflection of a solid bilateral relationship, than for reasons involving energy.

We are left with a need for the stewards of Israel's energy economy to fill the gap for the coming year. The Israel Electric Company has already raised its prices by nine percent due to the Egyptian shortfall. Now we are promised controlled electricity stoppages this summer.

The bigger issue--the future of Israeli-Egyptian relations--depends on a lot more than natural gas.