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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Ahmadinejad win actually preferable for Israel

ANALYSIS / By Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, Haaretz Correspondent

Any early bets about the results of Iran's presidential elections bordered on stupidity. Israeli intelligence can predict with certainty only the results of election campaigns in the pseudo-democracies of the Arab world, such as Egypt and Syria, in which the ruler will never drop below a threshold of 99 percent of the voters.

When it comes to countries or entities in which the process is closer to genuine democracy, there is a greater chance for forecasts to fail. That is what happened under Israel's nose during the Palestinian Authority parliamentary election three and a half years ago, when the intelligence community did not foresee the victory of Hamas (the Shin Bet security service cunningly covered itself in advance with a prediction of "both this and that").

That is probably what happened at the beginning of last week, when Israeli intelligence - like every other pundit in the region - did not foresee that the moderate pro-Western alliance would actually defeat Hezbollah in the Lebanese election.

And if that was the case in Lebanon, it's all the more so in Iran: 1,000 kilometers from us, over 70 million inhabitants, 46 million voters and a process in which certain aspects, at least, are surprising in their openness. When it comes to Iran, there is no escaping the old cliche about the elephant and the Jewish problem. And in this case, paradoxically, it seems that from Israel's point of view the victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is actually preferable. Not only because "better the devil you know," but because the victory of the pro-reform candidate will paste an attractive mask on the face of Iranian nuclear ambitions.

Western experts now agree that even during the tenure of moderate president Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), the nuclear program continued to advance. And in any case, the person who really decides on the nuclear issue is not the president but the spiritual leader. One of the president's advisers even made it clear recently, in an interview with Reuters, that the spiritual leader will continue to shape his country's nuclear policy, regardless of the election results.

Ahmadinejad, with his Holocaust denial and his long series of provocations, drew most of the attention, but apparently had less influence on the nuclear program. There are even senior members of the Israeli defense establishment who share the public stance of former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, who claimed that the Iranian president's behavior, perceived in the West as quasi-lunatic, advanced Israel's security interests.

To judge by the Obama administration's behavior so far in its first campaign, against the North Korean nuclear program, it would seem that Israel should not nurture too many hopes for American toughness in the dialogue with Iran. Pyongyang added to the anti-Western incitement this week, to the point of a threat to launch nuclear missiles. Washington's reaction was limited, at this stage, to a declaration by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates regarding America's ability to intercept missiles, and talk about intensifying UN Security Council sanctions.

The first reports from the Barack Obama-Benjamin Netanyahu summit last month conveyed satisfaction on the part of Israel's prime minister at the U.S. president's stance on the nuclear issue. In its optimistic moments Israel mentions Iran's vulnerability to economic sanctions and Obama's presumed ability to enlist support from Russia and China. But an American failure to stop the Iranian program will affect not only the extent of the threat to Israel. It will also symbolize the beginning of a regional arms race, at the end of which several Arab countries will also acquire nuclear weapons, in a desperate attempt to achieve a balance in the face of Iranian hegemony.

A new language

A week after Obama's historic speech at Cairo University, it is still too early to determine its long-term influence. Meanwhile, Washington can be pleased with the results of the Lebanese elections, and can be impressed by the fact that various leaders in the region, among them even terror activists, are making an blatant effort to demonstrate that they have internalized the conceptual world of the American president.

The head of the moderate coalition in Lebanon, Saad al-Hariri, declared that his country will adhere to the Arab peace initiative vis-a-vis Israel and made a point of flattering the Americans. "The significant turning point depends on what the U.S. does. It has a decisive role in the game. If it plays the game right, we'll have peace in the region," said Hariri. Even Khaled Meshal of Hamas, a well-known peace advocate, said this week during a visit to Cairo that his organization will be "a positive factor in the peace process and will support a fair solution for the Palestinian people."

Obama, added Meshal, is speaking in a "new language." He praised the U.S. administration for its pressure on Israel to halt construction in the settlements, and once again described Israel as "an obstacle to peace, as everyone knows." Hamas is making an effort, from time to time, to voice more moderate messages to Western ears. Their importance lies mainly in the reactions they will arouse: When Washington is conducting a widely-publicized quarrel with Jerusalem, the international community tends to have a positive attitude toward Meshal's ostensibly pragmatic declarations.

At least in the centrist and left-leaning wing of the Netanyahu government there is an increasing realization that the prime minister erred when he did not announce early on that the commitments of previous governments - and by implication the idea of two states for two peoples - are acceptable to him. In his speech at Bar Ilan University we will discover how well Netanyahu succeeds in extricating himself from the trap into which he marched with such determination.

Security first

Last week Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, went down to the Negev to observe a concluding exercise of the officers' course at Training Base One. The tanks and helicopters were a somewhat strange backdrop for peace declarations, and Netanyahu did in fact choose to focus, as a substitute, on somewhat forced nostalgia for the smell of high explosives. Truly, there's nothing like the smell of napalm in the morning.

To observers from the sidelines in the south, Netanyahu looked more pressured than usual. It is doubtful that this is the way he pictured his first months in the job that he tried so hard to retrieve for 10 years. But at the moment he is stuck with an almost unprecedented crisis vis-a-vis the U.S. administration, with a non-functioning Prime Minister's Office and under blatant threats by the settlers.

Barak, who has managed for two months to restrain himself and be forgiving toward the prime minister, explained this week to members of the Council for Peace and Security that Israel must welcome and participate in efforts for a regional agreement, and that it still enjoys profound American support on security matters.

If Netanyahu decides to surprise everyone and begin significant diplomatic negotiations with the Palestinians, and mainly with the Syrians, he will find not only Barak at his side, but the general staff of the Israel Defense Forces as well. The professional opinion of the general staff is quite clear, and was conveyed to the prime minister when he assumed the position: The threats against Israel are worrisome, but at the present time specifically, opportunities are being created as well. There is a short time frame in which the interests of Israel and the moderate Arab countries in the region are coalescing, and may even enable the promotion of peace initiatives.

Now it is Israel that must decide where its real security interest lies, and act accordingly.

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