NEW YORK - Israel and the United States are generally considered Siamese twins, with a common mouth and heart. The rhetoric coming out of both Washington and Jerusalem is similar: The leaders speak frequently about "strengthening the moderates" in the Middle East, as opposed to "the axis of evil." They talk about a promise to establish a Palestinian state in the territories and to take a determined stand against the Iranian nuclear bomb.
But listening closely will reveal big differences hiding behind the enthusiastic slogans, both in the way they view the world and in the assessment of the situation by the two countries.
This is the conclusion raised at the "strategic dialogue" conference which took place last week in New York under the auspices of the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel and the American Council on Foreign Relations. Although all participants presented their personal opinions, one got the impression they were expressing the accepted establishment views of their countries.
The major differences of opinion can be summarized as follows: The Americans desire a "dialogue" with Iran and the isolation of Syria, and the Israelis want talks with the Syrians and moves against Iran. Naturally each side has its own concerns. Israel is afraid of nuclear weapons in Iran and believes that it is possible to prevent their development only through a serious economic boycott and threats of a military operation. The American establishment is less worried about the Iranian nuclear power and balks at the use of force in the wake of the failure in Iraq.
The message of the American participants in the meeting was clear: Neither the U.S. nor Israel has a military option against Iran. Bombing the nuclear facilities would cause oil prices to skyrocket and would only strengthen the extremists in Tehran. In their view, Iran would respond by hitting the American soldiers stationed in Iraq and the oil facilities in the Gulf, and would begin terrorist operations in America. The year 2008 is already lost, they believe, and one should wait quietly for the end of President Bush's term of office since he conditions dialogue with the Iranians on delaying their nuclear plans. Whoever comes after Bush, certainly if he is a Democrat, will throw these conditions into the trash and will strive for a quick dialogue with Iran.
In less diplomatic language, the Americans say to the Israelis something like this: It is best for you to get used to living with a nuclear Iran, which will look less menacing if there is an American embassy there.
But they are threatening to destroy us, the Israelis protest.
We also heard such threats from the Soviets - the "we shall bury you" speech made by Khrushchev - and from the Chinese, say the Americans. Our people also spoke about a preventive strike against nuclear facilities. You simply lag 40 to 50 years behind us in strategic understanding. Instead of whining, it is better for you to talk to us about security arrangements in the era of Iranian nuclear power.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert probably shares the assessment that the Bush term of office will end without an attack on Iran. He told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this week that he does not share the severe view of Military Intelligence that Iran will attain a nuclear bomb by the end of 2009, and in his opinion we still have time to act against it diplomatically. Other senior officials in Israel share the opinion that Bush will have a hard time acting with force, in view of the widespread opposition in his country to a new adventure in the Middle East.
With regard to Syria, the situation is completely different. Israel wants "to distance it from Iran" through a dialogue, and assesses that the time is ripe because of Syria's weakness and isolation. But Israel is not eager to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights. The Israelis proposed a deal of "Iran in place of Lebanon": Syria would forgo its alliance with Tehran, would be given control in Beirut with the agreement of the Americans, and would disarm Hezbollah.
The Americans were angry - you don't care who rules Lebanon but we do, they said to the Israelis. And in general, your Israeli strategists always support the Syrian track while the politicians prefer the Palestinians. You should understand that the price of an arrangement with Syria is a retreat to the coast of the Kinneret. Until you are prepared to pay it, it is a waste of your time and ours to speak about illusions. Your politics does not allow a real dialogue with Syria.
Only on one subject was there a wall-to-wall agreement at the strategic dialogue. Both the Israelis and the Americans were of the view that the Annapolis process would lead to nothing, because of the weak leadership on both sides and the "galactic" gaps in their positions on the "core issues."
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