Netanyahu campaign strategy? Put Iran center stage.

An Israeli TV scoop about a near-attack on Iran two years ago underscores the lock that Prime Minister Netanyahu, who hopes to prevail in January polls, has on the national security debate.

Gali Tibbon/AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday, Nov. 4.

A juicy scoop by a leading television news show about a near-attack by Israel on Iran two years turned into a glimpse of what could likely be a central debate in Israel’s upcoming election campaign: Who is best suited to block Tehran from getting nuclear weapons.

In an hour-long piece, the TV news magazine "Fact" alleged that two years ago, security chiefs put the brakes on a plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to put the military on heightened alert for a possible attack on Iran. In an extended interview, Mr. Netanyahu was forced to fend off allegations he is too eager to launch a risky attack.

"I don’t rejoice in war," he said. "I am exerting very heavy international pressure. Part of that pressure is the awareness by main powers in the world that we are serious, that it's not a show."

Netanyahu claimed that Israel is "preparing" to face on its own what he has portrayed as an existential threat.

Putting the question of Iran back into the public spotlight highlighted how the Israeli prime minister is on his home turf on the issue of Iran, even when he is on the defensive. Analysts expect that if Iran and national security issues dominate the campaign before Israelis go to the polls on Jan. 22, Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud party should win handily, as no other active candidate currently can match Netanyahu’s charisma and credibility on handling national security.

Iran "is his policy, his identity, his brand. He drives the debate," says Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli-American pollster and political consultant. Even though most Israelis oppose the idea of Israel attacking alone, "he is given significant credit for putting it on the global agenda, and driving the point home to the US and Europe."

The "Fact" interviewer raised accusations that Netanyahu caused Israel to pay a diplomatic price for saber-rattling and friction with President Obama. Netanyahu was also asked to respond to criticism from an interview the show had done with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is believed to be weighing whether to join the race and is waiting to see who wins the US election today.

"What is this talk that we are the ones that will decide our fate and won’t rely on anyone else,’’ said Mr. Olmert, who is credited with ordering a 2007 attack on a Syrian nuclear core but criticized by the current prime minister for not doing enough against Iran. "With which planes will we attack if we decide to attack alone…? If we are lacking something, who will we make the request from? From [Obama], who we are doing everything to ensure that he won’t be the president of the US?’’

The show also featured an interview with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has crafted Israel’s stance toward Iran and the international community along with Netanyahu. Mr. Barak attacked Olmert as unfit to return as prime minister because of his handling of the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon – a six-week offensive widely considered to be a fiasco.

Though its still early days in the campaign, public buses in Israel carry election billboards by the opposition Kadima party – the centrist party that Olmert used to head before he had to step down because of a corruption trial – with a mushroom cloud and the tagline "Bibi will embroil us."

The leader of the dovish Labor party, which is now forecast to be the chief rival to the Likud, was left out of the television piece. Labor chairman Shelly Yachimovich has shied away from foreign policy and national security in the hopes that a focus on socioeconomic issues could prove to be Netanyahu’s Achilles heel.

However, with its sensational exclusive, the news magazine demonstrated just how easy it is to shift Israeli agenda back to foreign affairs and security. "There has never been an Israeli election debate about a threat from Iran and a proper response to it," says Eytan Gilboa, a political science professor at Israel’s Bar Ilan University. "Netanyahu is going to prefer the security and foreign policy agenda. In his campaign, Iran will play a role.’’

The question, he adds, is how much.

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