The change in the government has resulted in a quiet change in Israeli policy toward the nuclear threat from Iran. When Ariel Sharon was prime minister, he dictated a "low profile." Israel is interested in enlisting the West against Iran, he ruled, so it should speak in public as little as possible while do as much as possible via quiet diplomatic channels and psychological warfare. Sharon sufficed with the statement that Israel would never accept a nuclear Iran.
Sharon had two advantages: total security authority domestically and an image among foreigners as someone who might run amok. The domestic authority guaranteed a unified Israeli policy. The leaks to the foreign press that Israel would attack Iran if diplomacy failed spurred the U.S. and its European friends. Sharon's record - from Kibiye and the Mitle to Beirut and the Muqata - left no doubt that he was capable of giving the launch order to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
Israel then was left without a "Mr. Security" at its head, and its new leaders are finding it difficult to inspire the same degree of fearful respect. The result undermines the previous policy. First, the Iranian threat has become a partisan political issue. The head of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu, has called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to set aside the evacuation of settlements and direct billions into accelerated armament against Iran. Before the elections, Netanyahu backed an operation against Iran; now he is hinting that Olmert is not strong enough to deal with the threat.
Second, there has been a loosening of the "discipline" regarding discussing Iran. Olmert has called its president "psychotic" and compared him to Hitler. Shimon Peres reminded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Iran can also be destroyed. The Iranian president's remarks are outrageous, and they sharpened the public's sense of threat, but leadership also is tested via its ability to absorb things and not allow the enemy to turn the crisis into an Israeli-Iranian conflict.
Third, there are signs of a debate about policy emerging in Israel. The bodies that deal with the "political prevention" of the Iranian threat - the Mossad, Atomic Energy Commission and Foreign Ministry - support the American effort to isolate Tehran and impose sanctions on it. The problem is that the effort is not working. A senior minister wondered aloud to Olmert if the king of sanctions might not be naked and whether sanctions are the proper way to deal with a serious existential threat to Israel. There are questions being raised in professional circles if the world has already reached the point where it will have to choose between a nuclear Iran or a military operation against it and what Israel would do about it.
The questions are appropriate: Israeli policy is tardy in its following international developments. Ahmadinejad's letter to U.S. President George W. Bush was a brilliant piece of diplomacy that surprised Jerusalem. Despite the letter's harsh formulations against Israel and the U.S., it raised pressure on the American administration to engage Tehran in talks about its nuclear program. Henry Kissinger called on Bush this week not to miss the opportunity.
But Israel is finding it difficult to formulate a position on an American-Iranian dialogue. It would be best if Olmert decides what he thinks before he leaves for Washington, since the question will certainly come up. What will Olmert say to Bush next week? The recommendation he's been given was to make clear the seriousness of the Iranian threat to Israel, without appearing to be pushing America into a military adventure or explicitly threatening an Israeli operation. Olmert will need the best of his political skills for that mission. But that won't be enough. He has to fortify his security authority at home, lest he end up in the position of a wimp afraid to act against Iran. The decision on this sensitive issue has to be made judiciously and not due to domestic weakness.
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