Top Israeli Negotiator: Give Iran Until December to Back Down

Israel wants to set an end-of-year deadline for Iran to back down from its nuclear ambitions, its top strategic negotiator said.

Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s transportation minister who leads the Israeli team in the strategic dialogue with the United States, said he would propose the deadline during five hours of talks Thursday with the U.S. team, led by Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns.

“Sanctions must be strong enough to bring about change in the Iranians by the end of 2007,” Mofaz told a group of Hebrew-speaking reporters after meeting Wednesday with Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state.

The talks here this week come a few weeks before Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is scheduled to meet with President Bush in Washington. These discussions are likely to foreshadow the substance of that June 19 meeting.

Mofaz said it was his understanding that if the U.N. Security Council failed to intensify sanctions against Iran, the United States was prepared to lead European nations in a separate effort.

Mofaz said such sanctions could be aimed at shutting down Iran’s banking system. Engaging in major financial transactions is virtually impossible without traversing Western banking systems; a near shutdown could be accomplished outside the parameters of the Security Council.

He also said companies that help renovate Iran’s ailing oil industry should be targeted.

Unlike the banking proposal, shutting down assistance to the Iranian oil industry would be difficult to accomplish without full international cooperation, said Sallai Meridor, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, speaking earlier at a Council on Foreign Relations function.

“The world continues to fund this madness,” he said.

U.S. officials are pressing Russia and China, both veto-wielding members of the Security Council, to expand sanctions for the third time since December.

In Berlin ahead of the G-8 summit of! major i ndustrialized nations, Stephen Hadley, President Bush’s national security adviser, said Iran would be on the agenda for U.S.-Russia talks on Thursday.

“The Iranians are continuing to move forward on their nuclear activity,” Hadley said Wednesday, citing recent reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog. “So I’m sure what to do about Iran will be a subject of discussion.”

If Iran shows no change by the end of 2007, Mofaz said, the U.S. and Israeli strategic dialogue teams would meet again and discuss their next steps.

Mofaz refused to speculate as to what those might be, but he did outline for reporters Israel’s decision-making process for striking another nation. He emphasized that he was speaking in general terms and not particularly about Iran.

Nonetheless, the terms that he outlined suggested that a strike against Iran was the last thing Israel wanted.

Israel would assess the effectiveness of any strike, Mofaz said. Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program is believed to be scattered across the country and thus unlikely to be wiped out in a lightning strike.

Israeli strategists also would assess the “irreversible reality” such a strike would create, Mofaz said, and outline a “day-after scenario.” Analysts say a strike against Iran likely would precipitate a major conventional war and terrorist attacks against Jewish and Western targets.

Mofaz and Meridor each stressed, however, that all options should remain available.

Meridor was pleased that virtually every major presidential candidate, Republican and Democrat, agreed.

“I hope they listen to the debates in America,” Meridor said of Iran’s rulers, “because they will hear a message.”

Meridor said intelligence communities have outlined a “worst-case scenario” of a nuclear Iran by early 2009.

Both Israeli officials said the threat Shi’ite Muslim Iran posed to Israel and its Sunni Muslim Arab neighb! ors pres ented an unusual opportunity for peace.

“Can this ‘coalition of concern’ be transformed into a ‘coalition of peace’?” Meridor asked. “We are trying our best to explore this possibility.”

Mofaz said Iran’s conventional threat was also burgeoning, saying that it was rearming Hezbollah terrorists by “sea, land and air” after last summer’s Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon. Some of the missiles Hezbollah was receiving from Iran and Syria, Mofaz said, were capable of reaching central and southern Israel.

Coupled with the refusal of Lebanese and international forces to directly confront Hezbollah, Mofaz said, the rearming means “Hezbollah exists in southern Lebanon in the same dimensions as before the war.”

The war was not a total loss, Mofaz said. Israel had re-established its deterrent capability, noting statements by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, that he would not have launched the war with a cross-border raid had he anticipated the fierceness of the Israeli response.

Mofaz said he favored secret talks with Syria to explore peace options, saying such talks had only advantages. He played down recent reports of Syrian military activity on the border, saying that recent maneuvers appeared not to be offensive and were aimed only at raising Syria’s defensive posture.

His talks with Rice focused mostly on the Palestinians, Mofaz said. Even with the Iran threat looming, he said, tamping down violence in the Gaza Strip was of prime interest to Israel because of its proximity and the immediate threat that rocket attacks posed to Israel.

Mofaz said it was critical to keep Hamas from assuming total control of the Palestinian Authority and to renew negotiations with Palestinian moderates “that arrive at results.”

Meridor said Israel was taking steps to bolster forces loyal to Mahmoud Abbas, the relatively moderate P.A. president, and was advocating for a major international development fund as a carrot for Palestinian m! oderates .

Mofaz said the strategic dialogue, resumed in late 2005 after a three-year break caused by U.S. anger of Israeli arms sales to China, had improved. He said meetings were more frequent — at least three a year — and qualitative. Instead of sharing theories and staking out positions, delegates were outlining strategies.

“It’s an open, serious dialogue,” he said.

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