Thursday, December 31, 2009

Aluf benn on Netanyahu's triple whammy in 2010

(Aluf Benn-Haaretz).The most important decision Israel will face this year will be whether or not to go to war against Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes his life's mission is to save Israel and the Jewish people from the Iranian bomb. Since he took office, Jerusalem has signaled to the international community that it will take action itself if diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions fail to stop Tehran.

The conservative British historian Paul Johnson, who was close to Netanyahu at the start of his career and also influenced his views, wrote in Forbes magazine in August: "If the prime minister does give the go-ahead for a strike against Iran, I'm sure it will be a meticulously prepared plan carried out with utmost efficiency - and that its diplomatic, political and military consequences will have been carefully thought out."

According to Johnson, "far from being the 'bigoted right-winger' described in the Western press, Netanyahu is exceptionally bright and superbly well informed and has an open and flexible mind."

The decision to go to war would be complicated because of the fear of an Iranian response that could drag Israel into a drawn-out war of attrition, and the chance of missiles and rockets being fired at the home front. Is it worth risking severe damage to Tel Aviv and paralyzing Israel's economy just to delay the Iranian project by two or three years?

And that is not all: In the opinion of most strategic experts, Israel will not attack Iran without coordinating its moves in advance with the American administration. President Barack Obama opposes an Israeli strike. However, that does not guarantee that Israel will refrain from taking action; it means only that the decision to do so will be difficult and will probably be taken only if Netanyahu feels that Israel is completely isolated, and that the world is resigned to a nuclear Iran.

The premier could also decide not to attack, as his predecessors did and as he himself did in 2009, in the hope that Obama will succeed to rein in the Iranians, or that the regime in Tehran is toppled by protesters.

Thus the decision to attack is not Israel's alone. It could also be made in Washington and on the Iranian street. And it could be skewed by surprises - like a sudden discovery that Iran has already "crossed the threshold" and has the bomb, or a flare-up between Israel and Hezbollah that escalates into a regional war.

The second decision Netanyahu will have to make in the new year is what to do about the Palestinians. The freeze on construction in the settlements expires in the fall, and the prime minister has already promised that construction will resume at that time. "The world" will pressure him to extend the freeze and to advance the two-state solution, which Netanyahu accepted in his Bar-Ilan University address. In this case, too, as with Iran, the decision is not that of Netanyahu and his fellow participants in the "forum of seven" alone. For his part, Obama will have to decide how much, if at all, to invest in the peace process. Furthermore, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will have to decide whether and on what terms to return to the negotiating table.

Israel's right wing will have to decide on the amount of leeway Netanyahu will be accorded before the coalition collapses, and any developments on the Iranian front - or to the north of Israel - will also influence the Palestinian track.

Netanyahu's third major decision concerns Gilad Shalit and the price worth paying Hamas for the kidnapped soldier's return. The year 2009 ended without a deal for his release, and the prime minister is demanding that terrorists who pose a high risk be deported to Gaza, Arab countries or outside the region - anything but a return to the West Bank to rebuild the terror networks there. If Hamas insists on everyone returning "to their homes and their families," however, Israel will have to enter another round of decision-making.

And, as always, this year in Israel the big decisions will have to be made about all manner of unanticipated events and surprises, not necessarily because of anything that was planned in advance.