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Political Transitions in Israel, U.S. Leave Iran Question Unanswered

With Israel and the United States both entering periods of political transition, the differences between the two countries over how to deal with the Iran problem appear to be deepening.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently asked former Israel Air Force commander Eliezer Shkedi to draw up a realistic strike option against Iran’s nuclear facilities. As part of that process, Israel submitted purchase requests to the United States for new weaponry and ordnance.

But according to reliable Israeli media reports — confirmed by Israeli officials in Jerusalem and Washington — the United States has yet to approve most of the requested special equipment.

One reason may be stiff U.S. opposition to any Israeli strike on Iran.

In June, U.S. National Intelligence director Mike McConnell and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen visited Israel and came out strongly against any Israeli attack. Both argued that Iran was still a long way from producing a nuclear weapon and that any Israeli attack would undermine U.S. interests.

They also suggested that the United States would not allow Israeli planes to fly over Iraq en route to an attack on Iran.

Many Israeli decision-makers had hoped President Bush would obviate the need for an Israeli decision by launching a U.S. attack on Iran before leaving the White House. U.S. forces are far better equipped than Israel to conduct such a strike, and a U.S.-led strike would save Israel from the diplomatic fallout it would have to face if it attacked alone.

But the prospect of a U.S. attack on Iran is becoming increasingly remote. In recent weeks, the United States sent an undersecretary of state for multilateral talks with Iran, and Bush has toned down his rhetoric on keeping the military option against Iran on the table.

In Israel, too, those arguing against a strike have been growing more vocal. Opponents of the military option say an Israeli attack might well prove counterproductive: It would only stop the Iranian nuclear program temporarily, while possibly giving Iran a measure of international legitimacy for producing nuclear weapons in the name of self-defense.

Those who favor an attack argue that Israel cannot allow Iran to go nuclear under any circumstances, and that if diplomacy fails and no one else takes action, Israel will have no choice but to strike alone. They acknowledge, however, that Israel would need to gain as much international support as possible before acting and thus should allow U.S. diplomacy to run its course.

That means even Israel’s hawks want Israel to hold off on any action at least until well into the next U.S. administration.

A mid-August test launch by Iran of a rocket capable of putting a satellite into orbit in space sharpened the debate in Israel over Iran.

Opponents of a strike argued that the Iranian space program showed that Iran’s technological installations were too extensive to be destroyed by any Israeli bombing run.

Moreover, the fact that Iran has long-range rockets accurate enough to launch a space probe means that the Islamic Republic could retaliate powerfully against an Israeli strike. Iran would have the ability to launch attacks not only from its western periphery but from a range of sites deep inside its territory, making it harder for Israel to locate and destroy such sites.

But hard-liners like Kadima Knesset member Yitzhak Ben Yisrael argue that the Iranians are deliberately exaggerating their ballistic capabilities to deter Israel and the United States from attacking.

“The closer their nuclear program gets, the more nervous they become,” said Ben Yisrael, a former head of Israel’s space agency. “Every few days they release a statement as delusory as this last one, the aim being to scare off the Israeli and American peoples with the message: ‘Don’t mess with us, we are a world power.’ ”

It is the differences between Israel and the United States over Iran, however, that are most likely to influence Israeli policy.

Those differences are likely to grow once a new administration is in place in Washington, says Eytan Gilboa, an expert on U.S. policy at Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Institute for Strategic Studies.

Gilboa argues that there is a wide consensus in the U.S. Congress, media and military against the use of force.

“While Israel wants to stop Iran going nuclear at all costs, there are growing numbers in both parties in America who think Iran cannot be stopped and that it will be possible to handle a nuclear Iran,” he told JTA. “Here you have the potential for serious friction.”

How Israel responds to such friction depends in large part on who becomes Israel’s next prime minister. The potential leaders of such a government are Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu, Barak and the two Kadima front-runners, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz.

Of the four likely successors to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Mofaz is the most hawkish on Iran. He argues that time is running out and that the only way to stop its nuclear program is by military action.

Livni is the most dovish of the group. She has criticized Israeli government ministers for talking too much about Iran as an existential threat.

Netanyahu maintains that economic sanctions against Iran can be effective, but only on the condition that they are extremely tough and universally applied.

Barak doubts whether major players like Russia, China and India will adhere to a sanctions regime and therefore doubts that sanctions will be effective.

In the meantime, Barak has made it clear that he wants a national unity government. He says the problems facing Israel are so momentous that unity among Israel’s major political forces is essential to deal with them.

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