JERUSALEM (JTA) – In a major policy change, Israel has launched a high-profile diplomatic initiative to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions following President Bush’s warning that a nuclear Iran could produce World War III.
Over the last several days, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert embarked on whirlwind trips to Russia, France and Britain. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni went to China.
Together with the United States, these countries comprise the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Israel’s goal is to persuade them of the pressing need to tighten U.N.-mandated sanctions against Iran and convince Iranian leaders to abandon their nuclear program.
In Israel, Bush’s remarks highlighting Iranian threats to destroy the Jewish state sparked heated debate. Many lamented that the U.S. president made it seem as if Israel is the only reason for Iran’s nuclear drive — perpetuating a false perception Israelis say is not in their national interest.
The remarks also prompted a debate in Israel over the country’s readiness for a possible missile attack from Iran and its army’s offensive options.
Olmert returned from his lightning visit to Moscow last week heartened by President Vladimir Putin’s declaration that Russia has no intention of allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. But some seasoned Israeli diplomats believe Putin may be playing a double game.
Avi Primor, a former envoy to Germany and the European Union, argues that Iran is less interested in using its nuclear profile to destroy Israel than in gaining hegemony in the Persian Gulf and controlling its considerable oil resources.
Were that to happen, Primor says, Iran and Russia would have more than 80 percent of the world’s oil and could hold the West ransom.
Until now, Israel deliberately had kept a low profile on Iran for fear that too active a role would make the Iranian nuclear issue seem like a bilateral confrontation between Jerusalem and Tehran, absolving the international community of responsibility for dealing with Iran.
But over the past few months, Israeli leaders have detected a number of worrying developments.
With Russia and China opposed to tightening the screws on the Iranians, the Islamic regime is ignoring international sanctions. Furthermore, rising oil prices enable Iran to better absorb economic sanctions. Perhaps worst of all, the International Atomic Energy Agency is allowing Iran to continue its efforts to enrich uranium.
These changes, together with Bush’s remarks, justify Israel’s new high-profile approach, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz argued in a recent editorial.
“The minute President Bush placed his concern for Israel at the top of his arguments for confronting Iran, Israel had to come out into the open and make its position clear,” the editorial said. “The trips by Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to countries that are permanent members of the Security Council for talks on how to stop the Iranian threat are the first, appropriate steps in this direction.”
Several Israeli pundits took issue with Bush for putting Israel at center stage.
“No thanks, Mr. President,” veteran Ha’aretz columnist Uzi Benziman wrote. “There are already those who argue Israel’s existence is the source of all the Middle East’s troubles; references of the kind Bush made last week reinforce this impression and arouse dangerous anti-Israel sentiment in all corners of the globe.”
“Bush’s efforts — diplomatic and economic pressure as well as increasingly explicit threats to employ military force against Iran — are the way to tackle the problem. Israel should be left outside of the frame,” Benziman argued.
The resignation over the weekend by the relatively moderate, Western-educated Ali Larijani as head of Iran’s negotiating team with the West on the nuclear issue also prompted anxiety in Israel. Most saw this as a sign of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s increasing strength and a move toward confrontation with the West.
“His dismissal, together with the appointment of the extremist Ali Ja’aferi as commander of the Revolutionary Guard, are signals from above that Iran is preparing for that confrontation,” Iran expert Ronen Bergman wrote in Yediot Achronot.
If confrontation degenerates into war, Israel almost certainly will become a prime target.
Iran has gone to some lengths to put rockets within close range of Israel, via Iranian allies and proxies in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. Israel’s Arrow anti-missile defense system is meant to deal with the longer-range threats from Iran and Syria, but it is unclear how effective the system will be in practice.
Former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Epraim Sneh says Israel should push for stronger sanctions against Iran but must prepare for the contingency of armed conflict.
“If we don’t seriously prepare an Israeli operational capacity as a means of last resort, no government in the world will take us seriously or do anything itself,” Sneh wrote in Yediot.
Former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy suggested in a lecture in Jerusalem last week that a nuclear Iran would be foolish to strike at Israel.
“Israel cannot be destroyed for many reasons, some of which are known and others you can presume,” Halevy asserted enigmatically.
Washington remains the key to what happens between Israel and Iran.
Likud Knesset member Yuval Steinitz, after meeting this month with U.S. Congress members, senators and senior officials including Vice President Dick Cheney, told JTA the United States may soon present Iran with a military ultimatum.
“The Bush administration is well aware of the historic responsibility it bears as leader of the free world with regard to the Iranian nuclear weapons program,” said Steinitz, a former chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. “Although no one said as much, I believe it will likely add a concrete military threat to the economic sanctions already on the table.”
The question is, can the Iranian hard-liners be deterred by anything other than war?