It is surely the case that when President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu meet at the White House on March 5th, the timing of a potential Israeli attack on Iran will be on the agenda. Another topic of discussion — whether purposeful or inadvertent — is likely to be how such an attack would influence, or be influenced by, the upcoming Israeli and U.S. elections.
In December, Mr. Netanyahu announced early primary elections, which some political observers saw as political opportunism, but others saw as a the ability for the Prime Minister to consolidate his power and reaffirm his political stance in advance of an expected call for an early general election late in 2012 — presumably, near the time of the U.S. presidential election in November. If so, the two country’s electoral cycles would be on a parallel track, which may be a precursor to determining the timing of an Israeli and/or U.S. attack on Iran. The question is, would it occur before or after the elections?
Nothing tends to rally voters around the flag — and incumbent politicians — like a war. Israel’s leadership is certainly mindful of Israeli public opinion, which is evenly split about the wisdom of attacking Iran and fears of a more localized conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah should an attack occur. Even given the disparity of opinion, there are reasons for the Israeli leadership to wish to carry out an attack prior to elections, since as many Israelis support an attack as oppose it, and Mr. Netanyahu enjoys a comparatively strong political position.
But there is another important reason in favor of an attack prior to Israeli elections. The conclusions of the Winograd Commission — an Israeli government-appointed body charged with identifying what went wrong during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 2006 — showed that Israel cannot survive unless all the people of the region believe that Israel has the leadership, military capabilities, and social robustness to allow it to deter those of its neighbors who wish to harm her. The Commission said that Israel should seek peace with its neighbors and make necessary compromises to ensure its survival, but this must be done from a position of social, political and military strength. Apart from the potential existential threat posed by an Iranian nuclear strike on Israel, on the basis of the Commission’s conclusions, Israel has little choice but to attack Iran in order to demonstrate it is strong in the face of extreme adversity.
Although the U.S. populace is war weary, after nearly a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the results of the recent Pew Research Center poll on the views of the American electorate on this subject are revealing. According to the Pew survey from February 12, 2012, 58% of the 1,500 people surveyed said it is more important to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons — even if it means the need to take military action against Iran — with the support of 50% of Independent voters, 55% of Democrats, and 74% of Republicans. 64% of Americans do not think economic sanctions will be effective against Iran. Half those polled believe the U.S. should stay neutral if Israel were to bomb Iran, with 39% saying the U.S. should support Israel.
Our guess is that if Israel were to bomb Iran, in the end, the majority of the Israeli population would support such a decision, and the U.S. population would end up supporting a U.S. decision to support Israel. A 2006 Pew study notes that throughout history, in Middle Eastern conflicts, the U.S. population has steadfastly supported Israel. And a 2010 Gallup poll of more than 1,000 adults found support for Israel versus the Palestinians among the U.S. populace was at 63% — the highest it had been since 1991, when Israel was bombarded by Scud missiles from Iraq.
The Israeli population knows what needs to be done in order to secure Israel’s security in the long-term, and Mr. Netanyahu knows that in the face of extreme adversity, Israelis rally around their leaders, but may demand answers later. Similarly, Mr. Obama knows that there has never been a question about whether the American people will in the end support military operations that ensure the survival of Israel. Electoral politics may indeed influence the course of events between Israel, Iran and the U.S. in the coming months, but in the end, Israelis and Americans will do what they have always done — support Israel in the face of adversity.
*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions – a cross-border risk management firm based in Connecticut (USA) – Director of Global Strategy with the PRS Group, and author of the new book Managing Country Risk. Alexios Giannoulis is a research analyst with CRS.