CAMBRIDGE, MA—“Red lines” for Iran, a no-fly zone over Syria, and a potential run for prime minister in Israel. All were fair game Oct. 11 at Harvard University.
On the heels of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent announcement of early elections in in the Jewish state, Tzipi Livni—part of a panel at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government— must have known this question was coming: she was asked by an Israeli Harvard student if she is considering challenging Netanyahu in the upcoming election, set for Jan. 22, 2013.
The former Israeli foreign minister and opposition leader responded with a “no comment,” to the loud dismay of the crowd.
Joining her on the panel were Retired Israeli Major General Amos Yadlin, former George W. Bush administration National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, and former U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy.
Moderated by former U.S. Ambassador to Greece and Harvard professor R. Nicholas Burns, the panelists discussed a range of issues including Iran, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the “Arab Spring” and the U.S.-Israel relationship.
On Iran, both Hadley and Yadlin spoke at length about the “red lines” for the country’s nuclear program that have been requested by Netanyahu, but to this point dismissed by President Barack Obama and his administration. Hadley remarked that there are notable similarities between the Bush and Obama policies on Iran. He went even further, saying that Obama had “raised the bar” in pressuring Iran.
Speaking on the current debate between Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney over Iran, Hadley explained that the main disagreement between the candidates was over the threat of military force. Hadley noted that Romney believes the Obama administration has not been consistent and forceful enough on the military option.
Yadlin, one of the Israeli fighter pilots who carried out Operation Opera against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, pointed out that Israel and the U.S. would always have different perspectives on the Iranian threat due to their geopolitical situations.
On the Arab Spring and prospects of peace with the Palestinians, both Livni and Yadlin believed that all the changes in the region have made it more difficult to negotiate with the Palestinians. Yadlin took the most controversial tone on the issues among the panelists by advocating for the U.S. and NATO to establish a no-fly zone over Syria, and for Israel to unilaterally establish permanent borders in the West Bank.
Yadlin, citing his experience as head of the IDF’s military intelligence directorate, spoke frankly about conversations he has had with Palestinian leaders and the prospects for agreement. He believes that no Palestinian leader, including Mahmoud Abbas, could ever agree on final status issues such as the Palestinian “Right of Return,” which calls for Palestinian refugees to return to their pre-1948 homes inside of Israel. Given this lack of flexibility, Yadlin concluded that “we must shape it [the borders] ourselves.”
As far as Livni is concerned, there has been rampant speculation surrounding her potential candidacy for prime minister. Much of this has been tied to the possible comeback of her former boss, Ehud Olmert, who was recently cleared of the corruption charges that led him to resign as prime minister in 2008. A recent poll featured in the Jerusalem Post revealed that a center-left party headlined by Olmert, Livni, current Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz and popular former news anchor Yair Lapid would beat Netanyahu’s Likud party by a margin of four Knesset seats, 31-27, thereby winning the election.
Other polls, however, show Netanyahu with an easy road to re-election. Surveys by Israel Hayom and Maariv both predicted Likud winning the election with 29 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, up from Likud’s current 27 seats. Haaretz said the next coalition government, led by Likud and comprising of mostly religious or nationalist parties, could command 68 seats, up from the current 66. On Oct. 10, Israel’s Channel 2 News reported that Livni and Olmert are waiting for another round of polls before deciding whether or not to run for prime minister.
Livni is no stranger to the complicated world of Israeli politics; her party beat Likud by one seat in 2009. However, she was unable to form a coalition with other parties to achieve the necessary 60-seat majority to govern. After refusing offers from Netanyahu to form a national unity coalition, she became opposition leader. Her refusal to compromise with Netanyahu left her unpopular in Kadima, and she was defeated in the race for party leader last spring by Shaul Mofaz, who then joined Netanyahu in a national unity coalition. However, Mofaz went on to have a falling-out with Netanyahu and left the coalition, further damaging Kadima’s reputation.
Several times on the Harvard panel, Livni mentioned the need for Israel to gain U.S. support and build an international consensus on issues like Iran. During a discussion with Yadlin on Israel’s decision-making process, she rhetorically asked, “Is it really wise to [attack Iran] without U.S. support?”
In recent statements, Livni has been highly critical of Netanyahu’s reported dispute with Obama over Iran. Netanyahu, however, dismisses claims that he has created such a rift and says his chief concern is Iran’s nuclear development.
“God, I’m not going to be drawn into the American election,” Netanyahu told the “Meet the Press” program on NBC. “And what’s guiding my statements is not the American political calendar, but the Iranian nuclear calendar.”