The most important primary for our 2008 election may be yet to come — the Kadima Party primary in Israel in mid or late September. It pits liberal-leaning Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni against hardliner and former Army Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz. (Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is expected to sit out the contest and concentrate on staying out of jail.)
The polls are neck and neck; in the most recent, Livni's once-formidable lead has shrunk to two points. Hanging over the battle is the Iranian nuclear program.
Livni is thought unlikely to attack Iran precipitously; she largely sees eye-to-eye with advocates of diplomatic solutions to the various problems her country faces. But Mofaz has openly said he'd resort to bombing Iran if it were necessary to stop the mullahs from getting the bomb.
So if Mofaz wins, military action becomes much more likely. But when?
By most accounts, the Israeli Defense Force would need considerable American cooperation to pull off such a strike. No top-level Israeli politician has much confidence that Barack Obama would be forthcoming. But most are confident that President Bush or John McCain would give Israel the help that it needs.
So if Obama wins here, a Mofaz government would feel great pressure to attack before Bush leaves office. If McCain wins, Israel would have more time.
But Mofaz might not want to wait for our election. Why risk antagonizing a President-elect Obama by taking military action that he might vigorously oppose? If Obama, having won, were to counsel patience, what Israeli prime minister could ignore him?
Before the U.S. election, on the other hand, Obama might be reluctant to take a position — and the Israelis need feel no compulsion to conform to any advice from a man who isn't yet be president-elect.
Surely, an Israeli attack on Iran would bring a sharp and instant response from Iran and from its satellites, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as its pawns in Iraq. It would presage war in Gaza, Lebanon and the West Bank along with an air war of Israeli missiles and bombers against Iranian missiles.
Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states would criticize Israel in public but probably breathe a sign of relief in private that Iran's nuclear ambitions were thwarted or at least postponed.
The ensuing crisis would probably militate in McCain's favor if it erupted before the U.S. election. The more a foreign crisis intrudes on our politics, the more voters are apt to trust a seasoned hand like him and not to give an ingénue like Obama his shot.
Polls show that voters trust McCain much more than Obama to handle a foreign crisis. An unavoidable national-security threat would give McCain a huge boost. Just as in 2004, if the issue is terrorism or foreign crises, the Republican will prevail. If the issues are domestic policy, the Democrat will win.
Of course, Mofaz would need other parties to form a governing coalition. The dovish Labor Party might not lend itself to any aggressive purpose — but a Mofaz determined to bring down Iran's nuclear program might reach across to Likud and bring in hardline ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make a war politically possible.