News & Current Affairs

September 18, 2008

Livni wins Israel party primary

Livni wins Israel party primary

Tzipi Livni after casting her vote on Wednesday

Critics have accused Tzipi Livni of lacking political experience

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has won the leadership of the governing Kadima party, putting her on track to succeed Ehud Olmert as prime minister.

Ms Livni beat Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz by just 431 votes, or 1.1%, the central electoral commission said.

In a victory speech, Ms Livni announced that she wanted to form a new cabinet “as quickly as possible in the face of the serious threats” facing Israel.

She has 42 days to do so, during which time Mr Olmert remains prime minister.

He announced he would step down in July after facing growing pressure over multiple corruption investigations.

The senior Palestinian Authority negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said he hoped the result would lead to a return to stability.

‘Great reverence’

Correspondent in Jerusalem says that for much of Wednesday night, Ms Livni’s supporters in the Kadima party cheered at what they believed had been an emphatic victory, predicted by a series of exit polls on Israeli TV.

KADIMA PRIMARY RESULTS
Tzipi Livni: 43.1% (16,936 votes)
Shaul Mofaz: 42% (16,505)
Meir Sheetrit: 8.4% (3,327)
Avi Dichter: 6.5% (2,563)

Mr Olmert phoned his foreign minister to congratulate her and promise his full co-operation after she appeared on track to win with about 48% of the vote. Then the balloon slowly deflated as the results rolled in, our correspondent says.

According to the final results released by Kadima, Ms Livni won the election with 43.1%, or 16,936 votes. Mr Mofaz, a former defence minister and chief of staff of the Israeli military, came in a close second with 42%, or 16,505 votes.

The two other candidates, cabinet minister Meir Sheetrit and former Shin Bet director Avi Dichter, lagged far behind with 8.4% and 6.5% respectively.

Mr Mofaz’s supporters have warned that they may lodge an appeal against the result. His campaign headquarters has reportedly already demanded the ballot in the southern town of Ashkelon be disqualified.

Supporter of Shaul Mofaz (17 September 2008)

Supporters of Shaul Mofaz said they might appeal against the result

In a victory speech early on Thursday morning, Ms Livni said that she would seek to form a new coalition government “as quickly as possible” and called for party unity.

“All the people who came to vote today expressed what they wish to happen in this country,” she said. “The national responsibility [bestowed] by the public brings me to approach this job with great reverence.”

If she can form a fresh governing coalition within the next six weeks, Ms Livni will become Israel’s first woman prime minister since Golda Meir stepped down in 1974.

Our correspondent says that will be no easy task, and if it were to end in failure, general elections will follow in a further three months.

‘Mrs Clean’

Ms Livni is seen as less hawkish than Mr Mofaz when it comes to the Palestinians and to dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
Ehud Olmert formally resigns as prime minister and his cabinet resigns with him
President consults parties to pick a Knesset member to form a new cabinet – expected to be the Kadima leader
The MK has 42 days to form a coalition acceptable to parliament
If no coalition is formed, another MK may be asked to try to form a government, or a general election may be called
If a general election is called, it must be held within 90 days
Mr Olmert remains caretaker prime minister until the Knesset approves a new government

Critics say Ms Livni, a former lawyer and Mossad agent, also lacks political experience.

Her supporters say she represents a break with the past. Ms Livni is untainted by the kind of allegations of corruption and bribery that led to Mr Olmert’s resignation and have damaged the reputation of Israeli politics.

“[She] is a good choice as far as Israel’s foreign relations are concerned, but there is still the tension with Iran. I am not so sure how much experience she has for such matters and if she will be able to take the right decisions,” said Shmuel Sandler, professor at the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies.

“She looks like ‘Mrs Clean’… but she will still have to form a coalition,” he told the Reuters news agency. “It is very difficult to predict whether she will be a strong prime minister.”

Kadima was formed three years ago when former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon split from the centre-right opposition party, Likud, to draw together support from left and right for his policy of unilateral withdrawals from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank.

But its poll ratings fell after a stroke left Mr Sharon in a coma.

His successor, Mr Olmert, faced strong criticism of his handling of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war and he was investigated in several corruption scandals.

Polls now suggest Likud could win a potential general election, which would take place if a coalition government cannot be formed in the wake of the Kadima leadership vote.

The Kadima election comes as the US government is continuing its push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before President George W Bush leaves office in January.

Mr Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas held talks on Tuesday. An Israeli spokesman said the two would continue to meet until a new government was sworn in.


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August 8, 2008

Israeli PM faces corruption quiz

Israeli PM faces corruption quiz

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert (03/08)

Mr Olmert had faced growing calls to resign over the claims

Israeli police are questioning Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for a  fifth time over corruption allegations.

Mr Olmert denies claims that he double billed charities and state bodies for overseas trips and improperly accepted donations from a US businessman.

Last week Mr Olmert revealed plans to stand down amid growing pressure over the two latest fraud investigations.

He said he would not stand in his party’s leadership elections, paving the way for a successor to take over.

But if the new leader of the Kadima party is unable to form a coalition government after the September elections, Mr Olmert could remain as caretaker prime minister until a general election is held.

In all Mr Olmert has faced six corruption investigations relating to before he became prime minister, although no charges have been filed in any of them.

EHUD OLMERT’S POLITICAL LIFE
1993: Begins 10-year stint as mayor of Jerusalem
2005: Leaves right-wing Likud party with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to form Kadima
2006: Takes over as leader when Ariel Sharon suffers a stroke
2007: Helps re-launch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks after seven-year hiatus
2008: Announces plans to resign

In the most recent case, he is accused of submitting duplicate claims for travel expenses for overseas travel and using the money to fund family trips abroad.

That followed claims by a US businessman, Morris Talansky, that he gave Mr Olmert cash-stuffed envelopes.

Mr Talansky has said the money may have been used on luxury items, but Mr Olmert has said he only received legitimate funds for his campaigns for re-election as mayor of Jerusalem and for the leadership of the Likud party.

He has said he will resign if charged.

In the succession race for the leadership of the centrist Kadima party, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni leads Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz in the polls.

Public Security Minister Avi Dichter and Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit are also seen as potential successors.

But the leader of the right-wing Likud party, Binyamin Netanyahu, has been performing well in polls for a potential general election.

The political uncertainty in Israel has cast a shadow over a faltering US-backed peace process with the Palestinians and indirect talks with Syria.

August 7, 2008

Israel mulls military option for Iran nukes

Israel mulls military option for Iran nukes

JERUSALEM – Israel is building up its strike capabilities amid growing anxiety over Iran‘s nuclear ambitions and appears confident that a military attack would cripple Tehran’s atomic program, even if it can’t destroy it.

Such talk could be more threat than reality. However, Iran’s refusal to accept Western conditions is worrying Israel as is the perception that Washington now prefers diplomacy over confrontation with Tehran.

The Jewish state has purchased 90 F-16I fighter planes that can carry enough fuel to reach Iran, and will receive 11 more by the end of next year. It has bought two new Dolphin submarines from Germany reportedly capable of firing nuclear-armed warheads — in addition to the three it already has.

And this summer it carried out air maneuvers in the Mediterranean that touched off an international debate over whether they were a “dress rehearsal” for an imminent attack, a stern warning to Iran or a just a way to get allies to step up the pressure on Tehran to stop building nukes.

According to foreign media reports, Israeli intelligence is active inside Iranian territory. Israel’s military censor, who can impose a range of legal sanctions against journalists operating in the country, does not permit publication of details of such information in news reports written from Israel.

The issue of Iran’s nuclear program took on new urgency this week after U.S. officials rejected Tehran’s response to an incentives package aimed at getting it to stop sensitive nuclear activity — setting the stage for a fourth round of international sanctions against the country.

Israel, itself an undeclared nuclear power, sees an atomic bomb in Iranian hands as a direct threat to its existence.

Israel believes Tehran will have enriched enough uranium for a nuclear bomb by next year or 2010 at the latest. The United States has trimmed its estimate that Iran is several years or as much as a decade away from being able to field a bomb, but has not been precise about a timetable. In general U.S. officials think Iran isn’t as close to a bomb as Israel claims, but are concerned that Iran is working faster than anticipated to add centrifuges, the workhorses of uranium enrichment.

“If Israeli, U.S., or European intelligence gets proof that Iran has succeeded in developing nuclear weapons technology, then Israel will respond in a manner reflecting the existential threat posed by such a weapon,” said Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, speaking at a policy forum in Washington last week.

“Israel takes (Iranian President) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statements regarding its destruction seriously. Israel cannot risk another Holocaust,” Mofaz said.

The Iranian leader has in the past called for Israel’s elimination, though his exact remarks have been disputed. Some translators say he called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” while others say a better translation would be “vanish from the pages of time” — implying Israel would disappear on its own rather than be destroyed.

Iran insists its uranium enrichment is meant only for electricity generation, not a bomb — an assertion that most Western nations see as disingenuous.

Israeli policymakers and experts have been debating for quite some time whether it would even be possible for Israel to take out Iran’s nuclear program. The mission would be far more complicated than a 1981 Israeli raid that destroyed Iraq’s partially built Osirak nuclear reactor, or an Israeli raid last year on what U.S. intelligence officials said was another unfinished nuclear facility in Syria.

In Iran, multiple atomic installations are scattered throughout the country, some underground or bored into mountains — unlike the Iraqi and Syrian installations, which were single aboveground complexes.

Still, the Syria action seemed to indicate that Israel would also be willing to use force preemptively against Iran.

“For Israel this is not a target that cannot be achieved,” said Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, former head of Israel’s army intelligence.

However, it’s unlikely Israel would carry out an attack without approval from the United States.

Recent signs that Washington may be moving away from a military option — including a proposal to open a low-level U.S. diplomatic office in Tehran and a recent decision to allow a senior U.S. diplomat to participate alongside Iran in international talks in Geneva — are not sitting very well with Israel.

That may help explain recent visits to Jerusalem by Mike McConnell, the U.S. director of national intelligence, and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, each of whom delivered a message to Israel that it does not have a green light to attack Iran at this time.

Senior Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they do not wish to appear at odds with their most important ally, said they were concerned about a possible softening of the U.S. stance toward Iran.

Apparently to allay Israeli concerns, Bush administration officials last week assured visiting Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak that the U.S. has not ruled out the possibility of a military strike on Iran. And the U.S., aware of Israel’s high anxiety over Iran’s nukes, is also hooking Israel up to an advanced missile detection system known as X-Band to guard against any future attack by Iran, said a senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions over the issue have not been made public.

With sanctions and diplomacy still the international community’s preferred method to get Iran to stop building the bomb, an Israeli strike does not appear imminent.

If it did attack, however, Israel would have to contend with upgraded Iranian defense capabilities, including 29 new Tor-M1 surface-to-air missile systems Iran purchased from Russia last year in a $700 million deal.

Russia has so far not gone through with a proposed sale to Iran of S-300 surface-to-air missiles, an even more powerful air defense system than the Tor-M1. An Israeli defense official said the deal is still on the table, however. This is a big source of consternation for Israel because the system could significantly complicate a pre-emptive Israeli assault on Iran.

Military experts say an Israeli strike would require manned aircraft to bombard multiple targets and heavy precision bombs that can blast through underground bunkers — something Israel failed to do in its 2006 war against Hezbollah. It’s widely assumed that Israel is seeking to obtain bunker buster bombs, if it hasn’t already done so.

Elite ground troops could also be necessary to penetrate the most difficult sites, though Israeli military planners say they see that option as perhaps too risky.

America’s ability to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities is far superior to Israel’s.

Unlike Israel, the United States has cruise missiles that can deliver high-explosive bombs to precise locations and B-2 bombers capable of dropping 85 500-pound bombs in a single run.

Yet the cost of an attack — by the U.S., Israel or both — is likely to be enormous.

Iran could halt oil production and shut down tanker traffic in the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which could send the price of crude skyrocketing and wreck Western economies.

It could stir up trouble for the U.S. in Iraq by revving up Shiite militias there just as Washington is showing some important gains in reining in Iraqi chaos.

It could activate its militant proxies in both Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, from where Israel could come under heavy rocket attack. And it could strike Israel with its arsenal of Shahab-3 long-range missiles — something Israel is hoping to guard against through its Arrow missile defense system.

Perhaps most importantly, any strike on Iran — especially if it’s done without having exhausted all diplomatic channels — could have the opposite of the desired effect, “actually increasing the nationalist fervor to build a nuclear weapon,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli and expert on Iranian affairs.

Whether an attack on Iran would be worth its cost would depend on how long the nuclear program could be delayed, said Chuck Freilich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser and now a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“A two, three-year delay is not worth it. For a five to 10-year delay I would say yes,” he said.

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