The frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process was, for a change, apparently not the most important issue to the many foreign guests who visited Israel this week for the Herzliya Conference. The one and only Israel-related question on the international agenda these days has to do with Iran: Is Israel planning to attack Iran's nuclear facilities in the coming year?
Not surprisingly, that was the issue on which quite a few speakers at the conference focused.
Over the past 24 hours, the defense minister, the strategic affairs minister, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and the head of Military Intelligence have all discussed Iran's nuclear progress at great length, and indirectly addressed Israel's dilemma as to what should be done.
What could a foreign observer have learned? First, that at least officially, the Israeli line is harder than ever, with more implied threats of an attack. But if he listened closely to the nuances, he might be able to discern differences in approach among various senior officials.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is believed to be the chief proponent of an attack, said Thursday, "Today, unlike in the past, the world has no doubt that [Iran's] military nuclear capability is continuously approaching maturity and is about to enter the 'immune zone,' after which the Iranian regime can act to complete the program without effective interruption ... Today, unlike in the past, the world agrees that if sanctions do not attain the desired results to stop [Iran's] military nuclear capability, action will need to be considered."
But to wave the Israeli pistol, Barak chose a somewhat strange ploy - reliance on the media. It turns out that even Barak needs foreign sources sometimes. "Many commentators," he said, "believe that dealing with a nuclear Iran will be more complex, more dangerous, than stopping it today."
Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon ostensibly echoed Barak's aggressive line. An Iran with nuclear weapons, he said, would be "a nightmare for the free world, for Arab countries, and of course a threat to Israel. There would be nuclear chaos in the Middle East, because [other] countries would not sit on the sidelines."
There would also be more terror - against Arab regimes, against Israel and against Western countries, especially the United States, he said.
Ya'alon said the explosion a few months ago at an Iranian missile base had destroyed systems intended for missiles with a range of 10,000 kilometers, which could threaten the United States.
Therefore, he concluded, "One way or another, the Iranian nuclear project has to be stopped, because a messianic-apocalyptic regime must not have capabilities of mass destruction."
Nevertheless, he added, "Any facility that is protected by humans can be penetrated by humans. Every military facility in Iran can be hit, and I say this from my experience as chief of staff."
This message was directed at Barak no less than at the Iranians. After all, the defense minister recently claimed that time was running out, that in less than a year, Iran's centrifuges would be deep underground. Ya'alon, one could gather, thinks there is still time for other steps.
IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz is viewed as being in no hurry to launch an immediate attack. In his address Wednesday night, he spoke of "continuing to disrupt Iran's attempts to attain nuclear weapons." It is very important, he said, "to continue to build strong, reliable, impressive military capabilities, and to be prepared to use them if and when the need arises."
But most interesting of all were the remarks by the Military Intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi. Like Gantz, Kochavi chose not to use the term "immune zone," which has appeared in every one of Barak's recent speeches.
And like Ya'alon, Kochavi seemed to radiate slightly less urgency than Barak.
Kochavi said that to produce nuclear weapons, Iran has virtually no need of additional capabilities. Thus everything depends on the decision of the country's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. If Khamenei gives the word to create a facility to manufacture the first nuclear warhead, "we believe it would take a year. If he gives a directive to translate that capability into a nuclear warhead, we believe it would take another two or three years," Kochavi said.
According to Kochavi, Iran has "more than four tons of uranium enriched to three percent, and almost 100 kilos enriched to 20 percent." If this uranium "is enriched to a higher level, more than 90 percent, that will be enough for four atom bombs," he added, reiterating earlier assessments.
The MI chief described international sanctions as an "ever-tightening noose" around Iran and said they were showing results: "Iran now has an almost 16 percent unemployment rate and 24 percent annual inflation, with zero growth."
So far, the pressure has not produced a strategic change in Tehran's policies, but "the stronger the pressure grows, the greater the potential that the regime will worry first of all about its survival and reevaluate its positions," he said.
Kochavi barely touched on the Palestinian conflict, citing lack of time. But with regard to Syria, he said, "We are seeing the first cracks" around President Bashar Assad. "The talk within his circle is that the heart of the problem may be Assad himself, so perhaps they should start discussing models for replacing him."
In some areas of Lebanon, Kochavi continued, "every tenth home" is a storehouse for Hezbollah's rockets or a launch site for these rockets. Barak subsequently hinted in his address to the conference that if Hezbollah launched rockets at Israel's home front, Israel would attack Lebanon's strategic civilian infrastructure.
Altogether, some 200,000 missiles and rockets are aimed at Israel from enemy countries, Kochavi said, but Israeli deterrence has worked. "We are facing a more hostile, more Islamic, more sensitive Middle East," the MI chief concluded - one "less given to international influence" and facing "permanent instability."
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