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Two or three Israelis who are close to the defense establishment waited tensely last week for U.S. President George Bush's State of the Union address. What they were most interested in hearing about was the state of Iran in the eyes of the administration. Ahead of the speech, Iran experts in Israel persuaded Bush's aides - notably Elliot Abrams, the official in charge of the Middle East, who has been promoted to deputy national security adviser - to include in the president's remarks a call to the Iranian nation to rise up against the rule of the ayatollahs. The text was more moderate than that, but there was no mistaking its import: Bush invited the opponents of Ali Khamenei, the supreme religious leader and successor to Ayatollah Khomeini, to topple the regime and thus spare Iran an American operation against its nuclear facilities.

Bush's message - and the emphasis on Iran, as opposed to other democratically challenged countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia - was understood in the region. If it trickles down - and experts in Tel Aviv are willing to bet that within a year or two, the ferment in Iran will reach the boiling point - it will represent the success of the interim channel recommended by Abrams' Israeli interlocutors: neither bombings nor declarative bombshells; nor an American strike (or, heaven forbid, an Israeli one), which would generate long-lasting enmity and whose possible choice sent Mossad intelligence agency chief Meir Dagan scurrying to Washington at the behest of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon; nor European importuning for the Iranians to desist from going nuclear - but instead a popular, quasi-Ukrainian movement that will spring up in Tehran, in Kom and in Isfahan and will win over the army and the Revolutionary Guards until it vanquishes Khamenei.

A development of this kind would confront Bush with tough decisions, should Khamenei try to suppress the uprising with violence and should the insurgents cry out to Washington for help. Next year Budapest will mark the jubilee of the Hungarian uprising, whose fomenters were led in vain to believe that President Eisenhower's tough administration would come to their aid against the Soviet tanks. Bush is liable to find himself in a quandary over whether to become entangled in a civil war in Iran or to abandon the anti-Khamenei revolution.

Bush's readiness to risk this shows that the most consistent thrust of his foreign policy is toward bringing about internal upheavals in target countries. This can be seen in the invasion of Afghanistan to liberate that country from the Taliban and their supporters, in the assault on Saddam Hussein and his regime, in the activity against Khamenei - and in the position taken by Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the Palestinian question, including the appointment this week of Lieutenant General William E. ("Kip") Ward as "security coordinator" of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). A Palestinian state? Yes, the commitment to establish such a state remains intact, provided the Palestinians purge the terrorism and the governmental corruption, so that the new entity does not quickly become a failed state that tyrannizes its citizens and remains in a situation of perpetual confrontation with Israel. What is forbidden to the Israelis - dictating to the Palestinians what the character of their state should be - is allowed to the Americans.

For a moment or more, it seemed this week that Rice was outflanking Sharon from the right and that her skepticism about Abbas is more ingrained than his. The State Department refused to be impressed by the festival of end- of-hostilities declarations. A cease-fire, Rice and her spokespersons said, is positive if in its wake comes a battle against terrorism, not as a respite that will make it possible for the terrorists to rehabilitate themselves in advance of the next round. And without dismantling terrorism, Abbas will not get what he wants: confirmation that he has fulfilled his part in the first stage of the U.S. road map.

The first concrete manifestation of Abbas' success in meeting this test is supposed to be the unification of his security units into a chain of command with him at the top. If he delays or hesitates, General Ward will do it for him. Of hundreds of generals, Rice, with the assent of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, could have chosen any other officer. Assigning the task to Ward is a subtle hint in light of the experience he will bring with him to Gaza and Ramallah. A quarter of a century ago, another U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, assigned another general who served as deputy U.S. commander in Europe, Robert Huyser, to examine with his counterparts in the Iranian army the prospects of blocking the Khomeini revolution, but he failed. Ward's task is more modest.

His position in Europe as deputy commanding general and chief of staff of the U.S. Army in Europe (USAREUR) connects him to the Israel-Palestine sector. At the head of the U.S. European Command (EUCOM), to which USAREUR belongs, is General James Jones, who doubles as Supreme Allied Command-Operations. As Jones is mostly busy with NATO, EUCOM is routinely handled by his deputy, General Chuck Wald. One of Jones' and Wald's officers is General B.B. Bell, the commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe and of the Seventh Army. All three - Jones, Wald and Bell - are four-star generals, the highest rank in the U.S. Army. Ward, who is Bell's deputy, has one star less; he is senior, but there are some who are more senior, and he can be asked to leave his main mission and be reassigned for tasks that occasionally crop up.

Experience in Bosnia

Ward, 57, an infantry and paratroop officer by training, is a determined devotee of physical training. In his press briefings in Sarajevo he poked fun at the lazy reporters and interrogated them about whether they had done their morning exercises. At the height of an event of command rotation, he suddenly lay down and started doing push-ups. We can already envision him tweaking Mohammed Dahlan and inviting him to work up a little perspiration on his elegant haircut.

In the middle of the last decade, Ward was executive officer to the vice chief of staff of the U.S. Army, a position characterized by numerous useful connections, and which promises promotion. Thus he became a general, and to get the second star he was appointed chief of the Office of Military Cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Egypt. He was a Pentagon emissary in the year and a half he spent in Cairo (1998-99), but locally he was accountable to the U.S. ambassador there, Daniel Kurtzer. Today Kurtzer is ambassador to Israel and is responsible, on behalf of the State Department, for the Gaza Strip - but not for the West Bank, which is under the responsibility of the consulate in Jerusalem.

Ward's most applicable experience for Palestine is his assignment in 2002-2003 as commander of the Stabilization Force in Bosnia-Herzegovina (COMSFOR). In that capacity Ward worked to unite competing security organizations - the state army and the army of the Serbian entity - and to create a combined defense ministry. He searched for hidden weapons, plants that manufactured combat material, and individuals wanted for war crimes. In a scaled-down version, this is also what awaits him in the territories.

The Stabilization Force in Bosnia operated within the NATO framework. General Jones, the commanding officer of Ward's own commanding officer in the U.S. Army chain of command, was also the boss of his boss in NATO's southern flank, which included Bosnia. This duality gives the Americans flexibility. If they wish, they are multinational and can bring in dozens of other countries, some of which are members of the North Atlantic alliance and some of which are outsiders, from Jordan to Russia; and, if they wish, they can operate alone.

As such, Ward's appointment can also be construed as a move that is intended to create a fact on the ground even before the first-ever visit of a NATO secretary general in Israel, in two weeks. The secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, will meet with Sharon, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and General Staff officers, and will also fly over the route of the separation fence by helicopter. He will deliver an address at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya and will meet with the ambassadors of the NATO member-states in Israel, headed by the able Czech ambassador, Michael Zantovsky.

Ahead of Scheffer's visit, then, the Americans are capturing, separately, a bridgehead in Gaza. If NATO will want to take future responsibility for policing and stabilizing the Palestinian arena, fine; but if the French and others thwart that move, the Americans (in the form of Ward and his team) will bear the burden, train the locals and give them pass/fail grades.

Israel wants NATO

Ambivalence characterizes the Israeli attitude toward NATO. The temptation to upgrade relations is great, but so is the fear that this will be a booby-trapped prize, a mobile phone that also supplies information enabling the giver to keep tabs on the receiver. Israel prefers bilateral ties with countries to multinational frameworks whose striving for broad agreement leads to the adoption of pro-Arab positions.

Last week the North Atlantic Council - a kind of committee of directors general of the NATO members - with the participation of the 26 ambassadors to NATO headquarters in Brussels, headed by the secretary general, reacted appreciatively to a document submitted by the Israeli ambassador, Oded Eran, entitled "Developing the Relations Between Israel and NATO: A Proposal." In the document Israel seeks to raise the level of its dialogue and cooperation with NATO in two channels - bilateral (Israel vis-a-vis the 26), which will be more fruitful and free of Arab containment; and regional (the seven Mediterranean states vis-a-vis the 26). NATO will fashion a "tailor-made suit" for Israel and heighten its participation in intelligence, fighting terrorism, intercepting terrorist funds, analyzing specific threats and responding to them (a clear-cut possibility: suicide-bombers), coping with terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction, and research and development in these areas. It will also enable the Israel Defense Forces to tap into the vast spare-part vendor net of NATO's Maintenance and Supply Administration (NAMSA), giving it access to hard-to-get, out-of-production items.

Scheffer will arrive in Israel the day after the NATO summit meeting with Bush and after his meetings with Rumsfeld and Rice this week. The European-American dispute over Israel-Palestine is not as tempestuous as the dispute over Iraq, or that over Iran, of course. Scheffer this week provided an overture to his response to the question of NATO's involvement in Gaza in particular and as a stabilization force between Israel and Palestine in general, following his meeting with Javier Solana, the European Union commissioner for foreign and security policy. A role for NATO between Israel and Palestine would no longer be inconceivable, Scheffer said, provided that three "ifs" were met: if peace is established between them, if they both invite NATO and if the United Nations Security Council authorizes the process. Until then it can be understood from what Scheffer did not say that they will make do with General Ward.