ANALYSIS / Israel Must Adapt to Reality of U.S.-Iran Dialogue

Israel must divorce itself from the illusion it can unilaterally put a stop to Iranian nuclear plans.

The Foreign Ministry document, the details of which are reported by Haaretz on Sunday, translates into official language what strategic experts have been saying for a long time: Israel will not attack Iran's nuclear facilities and must get used to the reality of the U.S.'s dialogue with Tehran, considering the expected changeover of government in Washington. Israel should keep an eye on its interests in the event of a possible U.S-Iranian dialogue, rather than live with the mistaken illusion it can unilaterally put a stop to Iranian nuclear plans.

Among the Israeli officials who say that an attack on Iran is not imminent is MK Isaac Ben-Israel (Kadima). Ben-Israel told Maariv that prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni "believes that if Iran's nuclear project is not stopped by the world, Israel will have no choice but to attack." But he also said Israel still has time. "It doesn't mean we're going to bomb in three months."

Ben-Israel says Iran needs another year and a half to two years to overcome technical problems and will attain its first nuclear device in another two to three years. Until then, there is time to bring more international pressure to bear on Tehran.

Maj. Gen. (res.) Ben-Israel headed the administration for research and development of weapons and technological infrastructure. He was one of the planners of the bombing of the Iraqi reactor in 1981 and an adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. More than other politicians, he knows what strategic bombardment involves, down to the number of sorties, flight paths, payload and enemy radar disruption.

Ben-Israel knows the Israel Air Force is capable of the attack, which would postpone Iran's nuclear program by a number of years. But he is also aware of the diplomatic ramifications of such an action, and says that Israel would attack only after the whole world realized that diplomacy had not worked.

If Ben-Israel really does represent Livni's position, Israel will not attack Iran during the rest of President George W. Bush's term, and will wait to see what his successor does. Barack Obama is commited to dialogue with Iran and is aware of the threat of an Israeli attack. After Obama's visit to Israel in July he said the Israelis would attack Iran if diplomacy failed. But it can be assumed that at the start of his term, he will oppose force and will give a chance for serious talks. Bush might make it easy for him if he decides to open an American interests section in Tehran next month.

According to the Foreign Ministry document, Israel must persuade the Americans and the Europeans to first of all halt the production of enriched uranium. But Israel fears a link between a halt to the Iranian nuclear project and regional nuclear non-proliferation. In other words, a "Natanz for Dimona" deal.

Those around Obama have great expectations of a renewal of international initiatives for arms control, which were frozen during the Bush years. First among these is a monitored halt to the manufacture of plutonium and enriched uranium. For Israel, this would mean that the world would want to check whether "foreign reports" are correct and if so, to stop work at Dimona and send a monitoring team there.

If Livni forms a government and if Obama is elected, the most important issue that will come up in their meeting will be protecting Israel's deterrence, and preventing its being sacrificed to a deal with the Iranians or a global disarmament initiative.