Who Will Be Israel's Next Leader?

Last week, corruption-plagued Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that he would step down in two months — as soon as his Kadima party elects his successor in the primaries slated for September 17th.  Who replaces Olmert and his successor’s ability to hold the coalition government together are important because political instability in Israel could impact regional security.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has described the resignation of Olmert as an “internal Israeli matter.”  But the outcome of the election should matter to America because Israel’s interests are intertwined with our regional interests.  That’s why America should favor the candidate who shares our regional goal — a just and lasting stability — and will partner with the US to address key challenges that protect our vital interests.

Recently, Secretary Rice outlined Mideast challenges in the magazine Foreign Affairs that must be addressed to protect American vital interests.  Those interests, according to Rice, are energy security, nonproliferation, the defense of friends and allies, the resolution of old conflicts, and finding partners in the global struggle against violent Islamist extremism.

Our Mideast interests are at risk for many reasons, not just because Israel, America’s Mideast partner, faces political instability.  Israel has ongoing security talks with Syrian and Palestinian leaders which could stall due to political uncertainties.  Bashar Ja’afari, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, said Olmert’s resignation could have an effect on the negotiations, and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, was skeptical about the talks continuing.  "We have not, up to now, settled any" of the six questions key to a final peace accord, Abbas said.  There is also concern that a vacuum at Israel’s helm might embolden Iran to use terrorist proxies Hamas and Hizbullah to exploit Jerusalem’s vulnerabilities while advancing its atomic program.

Replacing Olmert could become a protracted process and not assured for Kadima.  Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni has a clear edge in the Kadima party race to replace Olmert, but officials question her ability to form a coalition and become prime minister which creates an opportunity for her opposition.

Opposition Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu is on the attack.  “This government has reached an end and it doesn’t matter who heads Kadima. They are all partners in this government’s total failure,” Netanyahu said.  He understands that if Olmert’s replacement is unable to form a coalition, Israel must host a general election by March 2009 which according to opinion polls would favor Netanyahu.  

Consider how the leading Israeli candidates — Livni and Netanyahu — stack-up to Rice’s three challenges.

First, America needs regional allies who are willing to take action against violent Islamist extremism.   

Netanyahu shares Rice’s views about the terror threat.  In 1995, Netanyahu wrote the book Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorism.  He explains in the book that “[i]f the West doesn’t wake up to the suicidal nature of militant Islam, the next thing you will see is militant Islam bringing down the World Trade Center.” 

Both candidates have negotiated with terrorists even thought they are on the record as opposing terrorism, which suggests neither may work towards America’s interests. In 1996, then-prime minister Netanyahu oversaw a lopsided prisoner exchange with Hizbullah.  Netanyahu granted freedom to 45 Shiite Muslims and returned 100 Hizbullah bodies in exchange for the remains of two Israeli soldiers.  Last month, foreign minister Livni voted with Olmert to approve a massive trade of terrorists for dead Israeli soldiers with Hizbullah.  The deal was far more lopsided than the one Netanyahu made 12 years earlier.  It included the release of six murderers from prison, the bodies of 200 terrorists, and a promise not to keep terrorists’ bodies as bargaining cards for future swaps.

Second, America needs help stopping states that use violence for destructive ends.  Rice specifically mentioned Syria’s undermining of Lebanon’s sovereighty, Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear capability and both states’ support for terrorism.  Livni is tainted by association with Olmert’s record while Netanyahu has been consistently stalwart on the issue.

Foreign minister Livni has consistently condemned Islamic extremists like Hamas that destabilize the region.  But Livni, part of Olmert’s government, participated in its deliberations during the disastrous 2006 war with Hizballah in Lebanon, which many Israelis regard as the worst-run war in Israel’s history.  It was a time of uncharacteristic indecisiveness.

In 2006, Olmert bungled the 34-day war with Hizbullah which the terror group claimed victory by virtue of its survival.  After the fighting, an Olmert government-appointed commission identified a long series of failures but declined to blame anyone.  In February 2008, Livni, Olmert’s deputy, accepted blame for the commission’s “harsh” findings when she said to fellow ministers “We need to continue together — that is the meaning of taking responsibility.”

Regarding Syria, this spring, Olmert’s government secretly began peace talks with Damascus which are focused on moving that government out of Iran’s orbit and stopping its support of Hizbullah and Hamas.  It’s reported that in exchange Olmert offered to surrender the Golan Heights and turn a blind eye to Syrian forces returning to Lebanon, which they left in 2004.  

Livni may be weak on Iran.  Last year, according to Haaretz magazine, Livni said “Iranian nuclear weapons do not pose an existential threat to Israel.”  She even criticized Olmert for exaggerating the “issue of the Iranian bomb.”

Netanyahu is diametrically opposed to the Livni’s words and her government’s actions.  He sees Iran as the major problem facing Israel.  “It’s 1938,” he told CNN, “and Iran is Germany.” Netanyahu said that "…where that [Nazi] regime embarked on a global conflict before it developed nuclear weapons this regime [Iran] is developing nuclear weapons before it embarks on a global conflict.”  He says the rulers in Tehran are “…a religious messianic cult that believes in the Apocalypse, and they believe they have to expedite the Apocalypse to bring the collapse of the west.”

While Livni’s government has been negotiating with Syria, Netanyahu has been opposed.  He indicated that should Olmert’s government sign a deal with Damascus, it will be rejected by the Knesset and most of the Israeli public.  Additionally, Likud chairman Gideon Sa’ar said his party would not be obligated by any peace agreement reached between Olmert and Syria if Netanyahu wins the prime minister’s office.

Further, Netanyahu explained that Syria was "an inseparable part of the axis of evil" that would not disconnect from Iran. He warned that conceding the Golan Heights, which is part of Olmert’s deal with Damascus, would allow Iran to use it as a command post to endanger Israel.  “The Golan must remain in Israel’s hands…I am quite amazed that the prime minister promises to hand over all of the Golan Heights even before negotiations begin,” said Netanyahu.

Third, America wants to find a way to resolve the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Rice says that a Palestinian state must be created that can live side by side with Israel in peace and security.  She explains that this state will be born through building effective democratic institutions that can fight terrorism and extremism.

Livni is Israel’s lead negotiator with the Palestinians.  She favors giving land – Judea and Samaria settlement areas – as part of Israel’s peace deal but Jerusalem will be kept under Israeli control.   Her party supports the achievement of two states carried out in stages such as dismantling terror organizations and collecting firearms with the end product a demilitarized Palestinian state devoid of terror.

By contrast Netanyahu’s Likud party opposes the unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood.  The settlements are “the realization of Zionist values” and “will continue to strengthen and develop these communities and will prevent their uprooting.”  It “flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.”  It “flatly rejects Palestinian proposals to divide Jerusalem.”  

Netanyahu is a sober, hard-nosed realist who has consistently opposed the current peace talks with the Palestinians and insists on retaining Jewish settlements all over Judea and Samaria — a position that is simply not compatible with creating a viable Palestinian state and is in conflict with stated US objectives for the region.

The former prime minister has also been consistent on the Palestinian issue since he first entered public life in the early 1980s.  He believes that the economic sphere is one where we can make quick, tangible progress, create more jobs and generate growth which will yield political payoffs that will benefit negotiations.

Apparently, neither Livni nor Netanyahu totally satisfy Rice’s three challenges, which is to be expected because Israel has its own national interests that don’t always align with US interests.  However, when Israel selects its leader, the US will have to quickly bridge any differences so the partnership can move ahead to protect our mutual interests.