Friday, February 20, 2009

Netanyahu Returns

Israel's President has asked the leader of the Likud party, Benjamin Netanyahu, to try to form a government. Netanyahu, a former prime minister, now has six weeks to put together a coalition to give him another turn in the job. Although Likud finished one seat behind the Kadima party of outgoing PM Ehud Olmert in the recent elections, the success of other, smaller, right-wing and religious parties ought to allow Mr Netanyahu to make a deal with them to ensure his return to power.

It's quite a turnaround for the veteran politician. The brother of an Israeli military hero who died at Entebbe, Mr Netanyahu first came to global attention during the first Gulf War, when, as Israel's deputy defence secretary, he was a regular sight on TV screens during Iraqi air raids. He took a tough line during his spell as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, and having later rejoined Ariel Sharon's government as finance minister, he quit over the Gaza pullout in 2005. Months later, Mr Netanyahu led the once-mighty Likud party to a humiliating fifth place in the general election of 2006, and it looked as though his political career was finished.

But things have changed since then. The relatively weak premiership of Ehud Olmert, which included the fiasco of the war with Hizbollah in 2006, and the continued firing of Hamas rockets into Israel, has arguably led Israelis to believe they need a strongman at the helm once again.

There's certainly reason to believe any attempts at a peace deal with the Palestinians may make little progress with Mr Netanyahu in power, even if President Obama pushes hard for progress - after all, Bill Clinton's relationship with Netanyahu was notoriously bad during his attempts to move the peace process forward back in the 90s. But if there's someone who'll be taking particular note of Mr Netanyahu's likely return to the premiership, it's Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Benjamin Netanyahu has regularly compared Iran and its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons to Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Expect him to order an Israeli air raid on an Iranian nuclear facility, similar to this one, sooner rather than later.

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