JERUSALEM (JTA) – Israel’s officials have long walked a rhetorical tightrope when it comes to Iran, balancing deterrence against diplomacy. Shaul Mofaz may have teetered a bit too far.
The transport minister, a top rival to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, predicted in a weekend newspaper interview that Israel would have to attack Iranian nuclear facilities if U.N. Security Council sanctions failed to curb Tehran’s uranium enrichment projects.
“If Iran presses ahead with its plan to develop nuclear weapons, we will attack it,” Mofaz told Yediot Achronot. “The window of opportunity is closing.
“The sanctions are not effective. To stop the Iranian nuclear program, an attack is inevitable.”
The remarks were the most overt threat yet by a member of the Olmert government, which like the Bush administration has only hinted at military force as a last resort for denying Iran the means to make a nuclear bomb.
Picked up by the international press, Mofaz’s interview stoked global jitters about the prospects for Israeli-Iranian tensions spilling over into war. Panicked trading drove the price of oil up nearly 9 percent to a record $139 a barrel – ironically another windfall for crude-rich Iran.
President Bush played down the threat in a published report Wednesday, a day after Olmert instructed Israeli officials to avoid making public threats against Iran.
In an interview with Britain’s Times newspaper, Bush outlined his efforts to step up sanctions designed to deny Iran the technologies and material it would need to build nuclear weapons.
Asked about Mofaz’s prediction, Bush was circumspect.
“We ought to work together, keep focused,” the president said. “His comments really should be viewed as the need to continue to keep pressuring Iran.”
Bush said his successor, whether John McCain or Barack Obama, would continue Washington’s policy against Iran.
“They can either face isolation,” Bush said of Iran, “or they can have better relations with all of us.”
Olmert told his Cabinet Tuesday that government officials should “refrain from discussing sensitive matters publicly” – an allusion to Iran’s nuclear program, political sources said.
Another Cabinet member, Minister without Portfolio Ami Ayalon, came out fiercely against Mofaz, whom many commentators believe rattled his saber as part of preparations to challenge Olmert for leadership of Israel’s Kadima Party.
“This is inappropriate, unethical politics, which I believe harms the State of Israel and its fundamental
interests,” Ayalon told Army Radio.
“It is best to speak about this as little as possible,” he said, referring to Iran. “If something has to be done, then we’ll do it.”
Israeli commentators noted that since a corruption scandal erupted around Olmert last month, Mofaz has been among leading potential Kadima Party candidates to replace him.
Mofaz, an Iranian-born former defense minister who is vying for prestige in Kadima against fellow contender Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, is widely seen as keen to show off his security savvy. Having come out against Olmert’s fledgling peace talks with Syria, he apparently decided to turn his attention to the need to tackle arch-foe Iran.
Israeli defense officials were quick to rebuke Mofaz, making clear he was speaking only for himself and not in the name of the official policy of letting sanctions run their course.
“Turning one of the most strategic security issues into a political game, using it for the internal purposes of a would-be campaign in Kadima, is something that must not be done,” Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai told Israel Radio on Sunday.
Pensioners Minister Rafi Eitan directed his criticism at a former commander of Israel’s armed forces who now heads bilateral strategic talks with the United States. “In matters of war, you generally do not make statements unless it is deliberated over and approved of by the government well in advance,” he said.
Pundits generally agree that Mofaz spoke for the sake of partisan gain.
“If Mofaz knows what he is talking about, he has revealed the two countries’ greatest and most highly classified secret and has potentially seriously damaged a military operation,” Yossi Verter wrote in Haaretz. “That is a bit too high a price for a party primary.”
Mofaz’s aides preferred to direct attention to his decades of service to Israel’s security.
“This is a man who spent 40 years in uniform and has devoted the last 15 years specifically to the threat posed by Iran,” said a spokeswoman, Talia Somech. “We would prefer that his comments be taken at face value.