TIP Election Debate: Candidates Emphasize Global Iran Threat

Leading candidates from Israel’s major parties emphasized Tuesday that Iran’s atomic program, widely thought to have a clandestine weapons component, will constitute a central concern for Israel’s next government.

The politicians’ statements, which came as part of a pre-election debate hosted by The Israel Project at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, reflect an Israeli consensus – mirrored by ones which exist in Gulf countries and in the West – that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would grant the Islamic republic unacceptable immunity as it conducts global terror campaigns and pursues regional expansion.

Israeli analysts and politicians have also emphasized that Iran’s atomic program is approaching an inflection point after which sufficiently degrading it will become untenable.

“We are getting closer to the red line,” veteran  politician Tzachi Hanegbi of Likud-Beiteinu told the crowd of some 300 diplomats, journalists, and others. Naftali Bennet, the leader of the Jewish Home party, echoed the warning, noting that “the window of opportunity is closing.”

Candidates differed on the degree to which the current geopolitical situation permitted making further territorial concessions in pursuit of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Hanegbi, whose Likud-Beiteinu party slate maintains a dominant position as Israel’s January 22 election approaches, emphasized the need to move “forward... [and] go back to the negotiating table.” Hanegbi drew a distinction between Likud-Beiteinu and parties to its right, characterizing the Jewish Home platform as one drawn up by political neophytes who underappreciate the need for pragmatic governance. Hanegbi outlined that Israel accepts the reality of "millions of Palestinians who believe they have a right to independence" but emphasized that the current Palestinian negotiating stance - which involves claims by millions of refugees on territory inside Israel's 1949 armistice lines - is untenable.

Addressing other regional dynamics, candidates expressed hopes that Israel could revive its relationship with Turkey. Jerusalem’s relationship with Ankara has been in crisis and efforts by Israel to restore it have been largely rebuffed. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in November mocked envoys sent by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “weird,” and he subsequently branded Israel a “terrorist state” for launching its Operation Pillar of Defense after months of escalatory rocket fire from the Iran-backed terror group Hamas.

Yesh Atid’s Yaakov Peri, a former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, noted that an alliance with Turkey was in Israel’s strategic interest and urged that “every effort” be made to restore it. The point was echoed by Labor’s Isaac Herzog, who advocated for “enhance[d] cooperation.”

The debate, which was moderated by Marcus Sheff, the executive director of TIP’s Israel office, involved a series of short presentations followed by a Q&A period. The candidates addressed a range of domestic and foreign policy issues, from the Arab-Israeli peace process through scenarios for disintegration along the Israeli-Syrian border.

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