We should not take the Iranian threat to Israel lightly. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seriously intends to erase the Jewish state from the map, and his engineers are working on the development of nuclear weapons that will change the regional balance of power. But what is the purpose of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's intensified rhetoric against Iran? Why has he abandoned the "low profile" that he preached at the beginning of his term? Four explanations come to mind:
1. To spur on Bush. The ideal scenario, from Israel's point of view, would be an American military attack that would destroy Iran's nuclear facilities and remove the threat. "We have to get the United States to carry out what it promised to do, and to create the proper international climate," explains a senior official. It is not clear what President Bush told Olmert in private talks that had him leaving Bush's office feeling so satisfied. We can only presume that Olmert is depending on Bush's religious faith and obstinacy, which will lead him to attack Iran, even in light of American public opposition to military adventures in the Middle East.
When will that happen? The head of the Mossad spoke this week about an Iranian nuclear bomb in another three years. This leaves a year for diplomacy and sanctions, and moves H-hour for a military attack to 2008, if Iran continues its nuclear development. The timing is right politically. It will be Bush's last year in the White House, and he will be busy bequeathing his "legacy." It is a known fact that U.S. election years have always been years of dramatic moves in relations with Israel, from Harry S. Truman's recognition of the Jewish state to Bill Clinton's Camp David summit, to the "Bush letter" that recognized the settlements and the separation fence.
2. To prepare for an Israeli attack. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon used to deny that Israel was planning to attack Iran on its own. Olmert prefers to hint at a military option. That's good for spurring the "world" into action, but it is also good for preparing Israeli public opinion for a complex conflict that is liable to continue for years. The experts disagree as to whether Israel has the ability to paralyze the Iranian project if it strikes it at critical points. It is clear that Israel would have to receive American approval for such an operation, and would prefer receiving it from Bush, who is friendly to Israel, rather than gambling on his successor. That is why even for this alternative 2008 will be the critical year.
3. To solve political problems. There is nothing like an external threat to calm the internal arena, and there is nobody like Olmert, an experienced politician, to use it. Expanding the coalition? Appoint hawk Avigdor Lieberman as minister of strategic threats. Paralyzing the opposition? Allow Benjamin Netanyahu to curse Ahmadinejad and call for his trial in The Hague - then he won't attack the government. Commissions of inquiry? Who has time to discuss the failures of Lebanon when the Iranian mushroom cloud threatens?
4. To remain in the territories. Olmert wants to remain in the Golan, refuses to talk to Syrian President Bashar Assad and uses Bush's opposition as an excuse: Israel needs Bush to fight Iran, and we must not annoy him by babbling nonsense about peace with Syria. This is an update to the old debate about the link between the territories and Iran.
The right has warned that the Iranian bomb would provide an umbrella for a ground attack on Israel, and therefore we must not come down from the mountains.
The left believes that withdrawal to the Green Line would take away Iran's excuse for attacking Israel. This does not interest Ahmadinejad: He wants to destroy the "Zionist regime," with or without the territories. The Green Line does not appear on his map. But his threats provide a convenient justification for Olmert, who talks like Yitzhak Rabin and behaves like Yitzhak Shamir.
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