In his address to the General Assembly of the Jewish Communities of North America in Los Angeles earlier this week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made it clear that Israel and Iran were headed down a road of confrontation. It is hard to interpret his message any differently: "We have reached the pivotal moment of truth regarding Iran... Our integrity will remain intact only if we prevent Iran's devious goals, not if we try our best but fail."
Speaking to reporters on his flight back to Israel, Olmert tried to soften his statements, saying that he intended "to rouse public opinion and governments around the world," but that the world was asleep.
U.S. President George Bush agreed with Olmert that Iran's nuclear program must be stopped "but America needs the support of the international community in order for us to successfully thwart this deadly threat," the prime minister said.
The problem is that the international community hears the threats of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to destroy Israel, and his declarations that Iran will soon celebrate "the manifestation of its nuclear right," and is not really bothered.
Members of the UN Security Council are still talking about imposing ridiculous sanctions that will have little effect on Iran, and an international military operation against the Iranian nuclear installations is highly unrealistic. The Democrat's victory in midterm elections in the United States also lessened the likelihood that Bush will bomb Iran. Israel, it seems, is facing Ahmadinejad alone.
Olmert stepped up his attacks on Iran's nuclear program without consulting any professionals. His declarations last month have broken his "low profile" policy on Iran that Israel adopted in its effort to present Tehran's bomb as an international problem. As late as last month, Olmert held talks in Israel on the Iranian nuclear program, and decided to stick with the low-profile approach.
So what happened to change his position?
"A weak prime minister who is dropping in the opinion polls suddenly found himself faced with Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman and Effi Eitam, who are politicizing the issue, and with a public that does not have faith in the prime minister due to his lack of security experience," senior officials in Jerusalem explained.
"Olmert is under attack for not being able to deal with the Qassam rockets, so he is under pressure and is moving away from the low-profile approach," they added.
These officials also said that the Iranian issue had been taken out of their hands and had been placed on podiums and television shows.
Therein lies Olmert's problem: After he made his bold statements, Netanyahu's warnings that Israel is faced with a situation similar to that faced by European Jewry when threatened by Hitler in 1938, and Shimon Peres' description of Ahmadinejad as "a Farsi-speaking Hitler," the moment of truth for Israel's political leadership is nearing.
The public will justifiably want to know what has been done to prevent the threat to its existence posed by Iran, and to stop the possible mass exodus of Jews from Israel, as described by Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh. Domestic pressure calling for military action will intensify.
However, experts on strategy have voiced doubts regarding Israel's ability to carry out an effective aerial attack on Iran's nuclear installations, similar to the raid that destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981. The experts say there are three prerequisites for such an operation:
· Accurate and updated intelligence on the locations of the targets, some of which are hidden underground and are well defended· The right kinds of munitions capable of destroying their targets with a high chance of success· Diplomatic coordination with the Americans. The U.S. forces in the region could become targets of Iranian retaliation, just like Israel, and therefore there is no way that an independent Israeli action can take place without authorization from Bush. Did Olmert get such a go-ahead and is this why he was pleased with his visit to the White House?
Because of the complexity of an air attack and the uncertainty of its effectiveness, the Israeli experts believe that it is best to take action that would slow down Iran's bid for nuclear arms, instead of aiming for a decapitating strike.
International pressure and sanctions were supposed to delay the Iranians, at least until the regime there fell, or some miracle happened. However, it is not working out.
The challenge Olmert has set for himself is not a simple one. But the more his warnings intensify, the more difficult he will find it to back down and convince the public that we can live with an Iranian bomb. Therefore, we can assume that the confrontation is moving closer.
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