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“The problem in the Middle East is Iran’s attempt to build nuclear weapons, the chemical weapons in Syria and the Islamist radicalism spreading in Africa, threatening to sweep the entire region,” the prime minister told his cabinet on Sunday.
A day earlier, he said Iran, the Lebanese Shi’ite Islamist group Hezbollah and Hamas were keenly following the Israeli election to gauge whether his ruling party had grown or shrunk.
“They want a weak Israel, a divided one, and the most challenged country in the world must not be divided,” he said, after opinion polls showed his sizeable lead was declining.
Hardline media in Iran have indeed forecast that Netanyahu’s Likud party, running jointly with the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu faction, will fare worse than expected in the polls.
“Contrary to Netanyahu’s predictions, the Likud party and its main ally Yisrael Beitenu will be in a weaker position,” wrote Sadollah Zarei in Kayhan newspaper, whose editor is considered close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
But Meir Javedanfar, lecturer in Iranian politics at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya, Israel, said the election rated relatively low on the scale of challenges faced by Iran.
“What Iran’s supreme leader probably cares most about is: will the next Israeli government isolate Israel’s position in the international community and damage its relations with the EU and U.S. through more settlement building?
“If the answer is yes, then Khamenei will probably sleep easier at night, because he most probably knows that an isolated Israel will find it difficult to justify a unilateral military attack against Iran’s nuclear sites,” Javedanfar said.
Iran denies seeking atom bombs, but has been markedly secretive about some of its nuclear activity. It points to Israel, widely believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, as the main threat to regional peace and security.
Iran’s ally Hezbollah is always an avid monitor of its arch-enemy, but the Israeli election can hardly rank with the group’s anxiety about the possible fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the loss of its overland arms lifeline from Tehran.
As for the Palestinians, they can only watch in dismay as their cause is eclipsed as a concern for Israeli voters fed up with failed peacemaking and as Netanyahu elevates Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the pinnacle of his national agenda.
“He presents Iran as a strategic threat to Israel, and he attempts to present the Palestinian question as a domestic issue under Israeli control,” the PLO’s Ashrawi said.
“People who know better understand that the Palestinian question is the real existential issue when it comes to Israel - it’s the key to peace, legitimacy and stability throughout the region, whereas Iran can be dealt with politically.”