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Can Olmert's Successor Handle a Nuclear Iran?

By Alana Goodman

Tzipi Livni meeting with President George W. Bush

The bombshell resignation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert could not have come at a more explosive time for Israel, as the country debates the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The two primary contenders for Olmert’s position are Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a popular centrist, and Shaul Mofaz, a hawkish military man. The politicians hold similar views on the Iranian threat, stressing the importance of diplomacy but not dismissing the possibility of military intervention. While both Livni and Shaul bring years of experience to the table, it is uncertain whether either will be able to handle an increasingly hostile Iran.

Though a 2007 U.S. Intelligence Survey found that Iran had halted its nuclear program in 2003, most government officials agree that the country still has plans to build nuclear weapons. Experts maintain that Iran is close to producing enriched uranium, but they disagree with exactly how long the rogue state has until it completes its goal.

Uranium enrichment is used to make fission bombs, a dangerous type of nuclear weapon. Fission bombs have the capacity to produce more energy than 500,000 tons of TNT, and Israeli sources say that Iran may have the ability to build them within a few months.

Coupled with this danger, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made threatening remarks toward Israel. While calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” and denouncing the Holocaust as a “myth,” the radical Muslim leader has also defended his nuclear program as “peaceful” and refused to halt research, claiming that Iran needs nuclear energy for civilian purposes.

“Despite threats and sanctions by a number of big powers, our nation is robust and is continuing living its own life as they cannot put obstacles in the path of our progress,” said Ahmadinejad in mid-August.

In reaction to these threats, Israel is considering preemptive attacks on Iranian nuclear reactors. While many Israelis believe the nuclear program must be destroyed before it progresses, some experts say that it is already too late. A recent survey by the Institute for Science and International Security found that Iran’s uranium enrichment sites are too spread out and well-protected to be damaged by an air strike. Even if the strike was successful, experts estimate that Iranian progress could be delayed anywhere from a six months to a few years, but probably would not be destroyed.

A preemptive strike against Iran could also inflame problems in the Middle East, resulting in a full-blown war.

With these threats on the horizon, Israeli government officials believe that it is crucial for the new Prime Minister to have a military background. According to current Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, “Israeli Prime Minister is a sensitive position that requires a massive amount of experience, including on security issues.”

In terms of National Security experience, Livni is the Barack Obama to Mofaz’s John McCain. Livni did have four years of experience in the Mossad, but since her job was classified it is impossible to know what she actually did. Some rumors painted her as an under-cover terrorist hunter, but recently the Mossad uncharacteristically released a statement that described Livni as a low-level agent whose job was less than spectacular.

In contrast, Mofaz, who served as Israel’s Defense Minister from 2002 until 2006, has had an illustrious military career. He joined the Israeli Defense Forces in 1966, participated in the Six-Day War, Yom Kippur War, 1982 Lebanon War, and served with the paratroopers in Operation Entebbe.

After the 1982 Lebanon War, Mofaz attended the US Marine Corps Command and Staff College. Once he returned, he served in multiple top military posts, including commander of the West Bank IDF forces, Deputy Chief of the General Staff, and Chief of the General Staff.

MK David Tal, who recently endorsed Mofaz, thinks that his military experience makes him more qualified to be Prime Minister than Livni. "In light of the security challenges we face, I believe Mofaz is the best person for the job,” he said.

Livni’s campaign is attempting to assuage concerns about her sparse military background by touting her ability to think on her feet.

"Security does not mean just being a military man," Livni told Ynetnews.com in a recent interview. "It's looking beyond and evaluating a situation while taking into account regional, socioeconomic, and military processes, preparing systems and using good sense and judgment that is not based on familiarity with just one field. It means asking the right questions and finding solutions to problems. That's what is required in a leader."

Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-on agrees that a Prime Minister can make military decisions without having been in combat. He said that Livni “has a lot of political experience. In the past three years she has been at the heart of Israel's decision making, in the diplomatic and security fields.”

Livni’s supporters say that her good judgment is also illustrated by her squeaky clean image in a party that has been plagued by scandal and corruption. However, top government officials have scoffed at this claim, and suggested that she doesn’t have the gumption to make difficult decisions.

According to Prime Minister Olmert, “Livni is not made from the material that leaders are made out of. She cannot make big decisions. She never has, not as justice minister and not as foreign minister.”

Defense Minister Ehud Barak also took a scathing shot at Livni’s decision-making ability. “The foreign minister, with her background as it is, is not built to make decisions, not at three in the morning and not at three in the afternoon. Being in the room when decisions are made does not make you fit and ready to make them,” he said, alluding to the popular Hillary Clinton “3 a.m.” campaign ad.

Mofaz’s campaign was quick to point out errors in judgment that Livni has made over the years, including her support for failed U.N. resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War. Livni also drew criticism last year with the Obama-esque claim that, “Iranian nuclear weapons do not pose an existential threat to Israel.”

Supporters of Mofaz say that his seasoned background and cool-headed attitude will help him make the most knowledgeable decisions. “I made a list of the traits needed in a prime minister - level-headedness, calm; military, foreign affairs and political experience; decision-making capabilities, reliability, modesty and integrity - I reached the conclusion that Shaul Mofaz was the most suitable person,” said Housing and Construction Minister Ze’ev Boim.

However, Mofaz has been criticized for his lapses in judgment during his years as Defense Minister, such as the botched withdrawal from Lebanon in 2006 that occurred under his watch.

Mofaz was also slammed for his recent comment that “if Iran continues its plan to develop nuclear weapons, we will attack it”-- a brash threat which caused the price of oil to skyrocket.

But any actual attack on Iran will need to be supported by the Israeli people and approved by the United States, and there is contention over whether Mofaz and Livni have the diplomatic skills needed to push their security policy.

Livni is extremely popular among the Israeli general public, with an approval rating of over 50 percent. Democracy Institute senior research fellow Tamar Hermann explained to the Jewish Daily Forward that Livni is appealing because she “seems to [the public] to be a sober person in a crazy world…She is thought of as rational and a person of principle, and given a lack of other politicians with these qualities, this could work to her advantage.”

While most of the policies that Livni has sold to the Israeli people have been unpopular-- such as the withdrawal from Gaza and the recent hostage trade with Syria-- she has proven that she has the charisma and fortitude to get things done. Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat described her as a "lady of distinction and leadership.”

In contrast, Mofaz is widely perceived as uncharismatic and inarticulate. He is not nearly as well-liked as Livni, and may have a difficult time leading the public.

Mofaz’s supporters counter that his aversion to flowery speech is actually a strength. According to YNetNews.com journalist Hanoch Daum, “Mofaz is not a great speaker…However, there is something moral and precise about him. He is very level-headed, as if he belongs to a different era of leaders. He is less about the media, doesn't know that much about spins, he's modest, and very to-the-point. I can't remember him ever yelling or uttering silly words.”

While Mofaz’s recent accomplishments are minimal, he had a history of spearheading controversial military operations while serving as Chief of General Staff. His leadership skills were notable when he led the 2002 assault on Jenin, and the demolition of former PLO President Yasser Arafat’s house.

Nearly as important as selling security proposals to the Israelis is selling them to the United States. Most experts doubt that Israel will take military action against Iran without a green light from the White House.

As the Foreign Minister for Israel, Livni has a great deal of experience working with top U.S. officials, and has become extremely close with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “Tzipi has not just been my colleague,” said Rice. “She has become my friend…I deeply respect her. I like being around her. And I know that long after we have both exited the world stage, we'll still be friends.”

Mofaz, who is the leader of the Israeli team for military strategy with the United States, also has experience with prominent U.S. officials. His team is currently involved in strategic dialogue with the U.S. on the Iranian crisis, and his Right-wing stances have made him extremely popular in the White House.

Something that separates Mofaz from Livni is that he is an Iranian native. Born in Tehran in 1948, he moved to Israel in 1957, giving him a unique perspective on Iranian culture. His experience could be a benefit when dealing with the crisis with Iran.

The Kadima leadership election will be held on September 17th, with the most recent polls show Livni leading Mofaz by 13 percent.

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