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Will Netanyahu stay obsessed with Iran or use his new coalition to help Israel?

Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy has been dangerously transfixed on Iran, neglecting the myriad other issues threatening Israel and Middle East stability. The new coalition government sets up a rare opportunity to reshape Israel’s domestic institutions and strengthen its regional standing.

By Nir Eisikovits / May 10, 2012

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a session of parliament in Jerusalem, where his new coalition partner Shaul Mofaz was sworn in as a cabinet minister May 9. Op-ed contributor Nir Eisikovits says 'The new centrist coalition frees Netanyahu from the chokehold of...extreme right parties' but he wonders whether 'Bibi' will seize the opportunity to make dramatic changes or 'simply use his broadened parliamentary support to secure the legitimacy of a future attack on Iran.'

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

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Love him or hate him, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a stargazer, a strategic thinker. 

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The son of the late Benzion Netanyahu, one of the state’s most preeminent historians, Mr. Netanyahu seems focused on nothing less than the ability of Jews to survive as a people and on Israel’s role in their survival. His insistence on producing Holocaust-related documents during his speeches is not exclusively the result of bad taste or cheap fear-mongering. Rather, the crux of Netanyahu’s strategic vision appears to be the imperative to prevent a second Shoa.

This is why he appears to be especially proud to have recently changed the international conversation about the Middle East. In large part because of his prodding, posturing, and threatening, much of the world has fully turned its attention to the threat posed by Iran’s reported nuclear weapons program. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, this marks a shift from the tactical nuisance that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – troublesome but utterly manageable – to a fundamental question that threatens the very existence of the Jewish state.

Unfortunately, Netanyahu’s sense of strategy has been dangerously limited, remaining transfixed on Iran, without expending equal effort or public appeal on the myriad other issues threatening Israel and Middle East stability. It remains to be seen whether this week’s dramatic reshuffling of his coalition makes a difference. But the new partnership with the centrist Kadima party could provide Netanyahu with the political cover necessary to address a broader range of questions.

The Iranian threat is but one part of a complicated regional puzzle for Israelis. The conflict with the Palestinians and the direction taken by the new regimes in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, and, one hopes, before long, Syria are other pieces. The great challenge facing Israeli leaders is to figure out how these pieces fit together.

Consider this: Islamist political parties are set to take over most of the newly freed countries in the Arab world. This is worrying, but the Muslim Brotherhood – now one of the most powerful regional political movements – is more pragmatic than some of its Salafist competitors. Israel (like much of the West) has a strong interest in keeping the Brotherhood as moderate and pragmatic as possible. How will an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear program impact the orientation of the newly emerging Arab regimes? How will it impact the prospects of maintaining the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan?

Israel also has a vital interest in strengthening moderate elements in the Palestinian territories. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and his technocratic colleagues have kept the West Bank relatively quiet and prosperous in the last few years. How would attacking Iranian nuclear facilities influence the balance of power between moderates and extremists inside Palestinian Territories. What would it do to the credibility of Mr. Fayyad and his supporters? What, for that matter, would it do to the delicate balance between the most bellicose and more moderate elements inside Hamas (itself an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood)?

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