Wall Street Journal: Iran's nuclear program is becoming an increasingly important issue in the race for Israel's premiership, though the campaign started in earnest only last week.
The Wall Street Journal
By CAM SIMPSON
August 6, 2008; Page A8
JERUSALEM — Iran's nuclear program is becoming an increasingly important issue in the race for Israel's premiership, though the campaign started in earnest only last week.
The issue is certain to become more politicized with Israel's primary rapidly approaching, contributing to a climate that could further rattle global oil markets and inflame regional tensions. The Israeli campaign is heating up just as the U.S. is trying to ease anxieties over Iran and focus on diplomacy.
The two leading candidates to replace Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who announced his resignation last week under a hail of corruption allegations, are already speaking loudly and sternly about Iran. Winning votes and taking a hard line on security issues are tightly intertwined in Israel, though this year's campaign could ripple beyond the Jewish state.
The Kadima party primary is slated for Sept. 17, although a subsequent runoff is possible. The winner will be empowered to form a ruling coalition, but a general election could follow if such efforts fail.
The leading Kadima contender with the most hawkish stance is Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz. He is blamed by some oil analysts for pushing crude prices higher by his repeated statements about potential military strikes against Iran's nuclear program.
Though more reserved, front-runner Tzipi Livni, who is currently Israel's foreign minister, is also talking tough. She has hired the political team behind former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the man who personified iron-fisted leadership more than any other recent Israeli leader.
The bottom line is that traders and world leaders who have been nervously tracking heated Israeli rhetoric about Iran should "get ready for some more" in the next six weeks, says Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Hebrew University and one of Israel's leading analysts.
"If he wins, Mofaz is going to be elected based on rank-and-file voters of the Kadima party — not by oil speculators and those who hold oil stocks," says Mr. Hazan. "He's not playing in that arena."
Mr. Mofaz, whose background is in defense and security, will continue to hammer the perceived threat from Iran as he plays to his own strengths in the battle for Israeli voters, Mr. Hazan says.
Iran's nuclear program is the "800-pound gorilla…in the room all the time," Mr. Hazan says. Mr. Mofaz "is going to point at it all the time."
Mr. Mofaz, who was born into Iran's Persian-Jewish community before coming to Israel with his parents in 1958, unofficially kicked off his campaign before it was clear that Mr. Olmert would step aside.
In a long interview published in a Hebrew-language newspaper June 6, Mr. Mofaz declared that if Iran "continues with its plans to develop nuclear weapons, we will attack….There won't be any way around attacking Iran to stop the Iranian nuclear program."
That same day, crude recorded its largest price jump ever, leaping almost $11 per barrel. While a weakening dollar and jitters over the reliability of world supplies appeared to be largely to blame, some analysts also cited Mr. Mofaz.
About a quarter of the world's crude supply is shipped through the Strait of Hormuz off the Iranian coast. Tehran has threatened to squeeze the shipping lane if attacked.
On Friday, during a forum in Washington, Mr. Mofaz twice said about Iran's nuclear program that Israel "will not let the second Holocaust happen to the Jewish people once again." He said he wanted peace, but that diplomacy had limits and the window to take action against Iran was quickly closing.
On Sunday, in a speech at a local election rally in Israel, Mr. Mofaz even cited Iran in rejecting calls for new general elections. "Israel does not need general elections now, in light of the existential challenges facing us," he said, according to an aide and Israeli news reports.
Iran says its nuclear program is for strictly civilian-power purposes.
Ms. Livni, in an interview Sunday on CNN, dismissed a 15-to-36-month timetable for potential action against Iran put forth last week by her government's own defense minister. Instead, she said, "I think time is of the essence even more. While we are talking, Iran continues."
She also responded to concerns expressed by American defense officials about the potential fallout from a strike against Iran by saying, "The choice in the Middle East is [a] choice between bad options."
Abraham Diskin, another Israeli analyst and the former chairman of Hebrew University's political science department, said Iran "is the most important political issue for Israel today." An Israeli politician "has to show muscle, even if you don't have it," he added.