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Netanyahu and Mofaz: Broadening the Middle Eastern Perspective?

27 June 2012

By Yisrael Ne'eman.

While Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu may be seen as a strong virtually irreplaceable leader he certainly faces overwhelming challenges. As daunting as domestic issues appear the full existential threat is erupting on the outside in the form of the Iranian nuclear threat and the Islamic Awakening in the Arab World. On the local level, the continuing stand offs with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the potential instability in the PA/Fatah ruled West Bank (Judea and Samaria) produce daily conflicts. Add in the continued economic deterioration of Israel's largest trading partner in the Euro zone and the future is at best unsure. Here are just a few more reasons why Netanyahu preferred Shaul Mofaz's Kadima faction at his side and did not want to be dependent on the ultra-orthodox factions for coalition stability.

As concerns EU economic relations Israel has a small economy and a fair amount of flexibility in finding other markets. Since the mid 2000s Israeli entrepreneurs with government support are opening markets in the world's two most populous countries, mainland China and India. Israeli exports need to be and are being redirected for a more balanced trade picture.

The security issues are far more dire. All may be coming to a head by July first when full European sanctions are expected to go into effect against the Khomeinist Shiite Iranian regime should they not halt their nuclear weapons program. Recent negotiations between Tehran and the West came to nothing and even should there be an agreement, the Iranians will follow the North Korean example and violate all commitments. It is well known Pres. Ahmedinejad & Co. are committed to Israel's destruction and are only buying time. The Israeli dilemma remains in place: When does the West knock out the Iranian nuclear potential? If the West delays to the point of Iranian nuclear armament at what point does Israel take matters into its own hands and strike? And what will be the political – diplomatic price to be paid by Jerusalem? What will be Tehran's rocket response? As declared "centrists" Netanyahu wants Kadima's consent to whatever policy decisions must be implemented. Let's recall that Kadima leader Mofaz is against attacking the Iranian facilities but this too can change as everything is a matter of timing.

Here Iran's Syrian and Lebanese Hezobllah allies/proxies come into play when ordered to drop rockets on Israel. As for Syria, Israel needs to prepare for the fall of Assad, but no one knows which Syrian opposition will replace his Baath Party. The best bet is the Muslim Brotherhood, meaning a worse option than the present reality. The Lebanese cannot take on Hezbollah and win. Only a complete Iranian demise will end that threat.

The Islamic Awakening and removal of Arab secular regimes is the most serious long term concern for Israel and the West. Egypt's military is attempting to hold off a full Muslim Brotherhood election sweep but in the end they will be forced to concede defeat. It appears that Gen. Tantawi and the SCAF military rulers were hoping for some form of hybrid arrangement with the Brotherhood in an attempt to hold back a much more fanatical Islamic takeover by the Salafists and Al Qaeda down the road. Mohammed Morsi may have taken the presidential elections but his declared moderation cannot be expected to last. The street will speak and the military, despite the amount of force used, will fail in the long run. Israel faces a low intensity conflict (LIC) on the Negev border in the short term as Islamic terror groups increasingly operate in Sinai to the detriment of Egyptian security forces. The Egyptian military brass view the 1979 peace treaty as a strategic pillar for national security and are not willing to initiate a full scale war in the name of Jihad, Allah or anyone else. To do so means to break ties with the West and get crushed on the battlefield. The smoldering border conflict with Gaza is moving south and spilling over onto the Egyptian frontier. Israel needs a measured response not endangering the already fragile relations with Cairo while simultaneously damaging Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and/or Al Qaeda terrorists in Sinai. To win, the Egyptian army needs to regain control of the region. It is here that Netanyahu wants to hear from former army chief of staff and ex-defense minister Mofaz in the hope of outmaneuvering the more right wing elements in his government.

Much worse is the long term forecast. The revolution may peak with a Salafist extremist push replacing a "cold peace" with a very hot border, if not a war. But should they only try and fail, deeper turmoil in Egypt can be expected with no positive outcome in sight. It just might take longer for an extremist victory.

Turning to the Palestinians Kadima is once again part of the larger picture. To retain calm on the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) front Netanyahu needs at least the semblance of negotiations and someone to take the blame whether they succeed or not. The issue here is less one of keeping Palestinian Authority PM Mahmud Abbas happy and more of satisfying the Americans and Europeans. Any agreement with the Fatah led West Bank administration will ignite an anti-government reaction by the settler activists who enjoy support in the Likud's right wing. Netanyahu needs bolstering from the center, meaning Kadima, to ensure any advancement on the peace front. No major shifts are to be expected, rather there may be a broadening into Stage II of the Bush Road Map whereby an interim Palestinian State is formed but without permanent borders. Netanyahu is consistent in first demanding an "economic peace" whereby there is Palestinian state-in-the-making development and something to lose should such a future regime prove belligerent. This may very well be the "price" the Likud must pay not only to stay in power but to ensure US and EU support in the continuing confrontation with Iran. The West wants to prove that not all the Arab/Muslim world will go Islamist. The Abbas regime is to be an example of a secular western leaning Arab nationalist regime bringing development, security and peace to its people. Such an option is to stand in full contradiction to the Hamas Gaza radicals.

Speaking of Gaza, every three months there is another round of shelling into the Negev and counter attacks by Israel - so here we are again. Israel has every interest in a quiet border but cannot take major action until the Iranian contest is solved and that may take until the end of summer. Afterwards Israel will have a much freer hand, in particular with Kadima in the government and even more so should there be a "peace process" on the Fatah/West Bank front.

Netanyhu moved towards the middle to allow more room for maneuver. Any price to be paid especially as concerns the Palestinians or containing of the settlement movement will be blamed on Kadima. Any credit for "success" on these fronts will be claimed by Mofaz. Each side will take credit or appropriate blame for their own advantage. Behind closed doors both are seeking similar policies and outcomes. With the Likud as the front runner by far the pressure is more on Mofaz to prove Kadima can impact policies by shifting them more middle road.

On the foreign policy front there are far too many factors completely beyond Israel's control to predict any sort of direction. One aspect appears fairly sure, European sanctions will intensify against Iran as of July. The Iranian reaction will determine much of what happens this summer, at least as a first step. What that response will be nobody knows. Quite possibly it is here where the dominoes will begin to fall.