Empty Words

Olmert is conducting the sensitive dialogue with Iran in a rather puzzling way. Even when he has no reason to shoot, but can make do with talk, one must know how to do it.

The most memorable line from the spaghetti western "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," was that of Tuko (the Ugly): "If you're gonna shoot - shoot, don't talk." Tuko utters this bit of wisdom at a moment when one of the gunmen trying to kill him finds him sitting in a bathtub full of soapy water, points a threatening revolver his way and begins a conversation. Tuko fires the pistol he is hiding under the water, kills his rival and passes an eternal lesson on to the viewer: there are moments when talk is superfluous.

Making the necessary adjustments for time and place, it seems Ehud Olmert forgot Tuko's axiom: He is conducting the sensitive dialogue with Iran in a rather puzzling way. Even when he has no reason to shoot, but can make do with talk, one must know how to do it.

Last week the prime minister offered reasons to question whether he is endowed with the necessary ability to carry out this delicate task. On the eve of his departure to the United States, he said in an interview to the American weekly Newsweek that they should start being afraid in Tehran. He also added that "Israel has many options" in countering the Iranian threat. Talking to reporters that accompanied him on his visit to the U.S., he reiterated that Iran will have a reason to compromise over its nuclear program "only if it has a reason to be afraid." During his address at the General Assembly of the Jewish Communities of North America in Los Angeles, he offered Iran a reason to be afraid: he said that Israel will not tolerate a situation in which Iran has nuclear weapons. Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh was even more specific when he said that Israel must prevent Iran from developing nuclear arms "at all cost" and that a preemptive strike may be "the only option."

Conducting a dialogue on deterrence at the nuclear level is a very sensitive task and volumes of theory have been written on it. To date, Israel has proven that it knows how to do this. Israel's formula, that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear arms in the region, has served its role well for a significant period of time. The circumstances have changed and, perhaps, there is a need to change the rhetoric.

Hopefully, the prime minister and the deputy defense minister did not pull their statements out of their holsters without serious consultation with the relevant professionals. If their warnings were indeed the result of well-thought out considerations, it is difficult to understand the point of preceding them with detailed declarations pronouncing their purpose. It is one thing to reach the conclusion that it is necessary to frighten the other side, and another to inform the other side that Israel has reached the conclusion that it is necessary to scare it - and that the intimidation is coming. Is the credibility of the deterrence stronger when the party threatening action informs the receiving side that it plans a warning, in order to deter it? Or, if we are to paraphrase Tuko's advice: "If you are going to deter - deter, don't blab on about your intentions to deter."

Beyond the concern regarding the effectiveness of the dialogue with Iran, raised in these reservations, they are meant to highlight the fact that the words uttered by the country's leadership are void of meaning. Dan Halutz, and the entire public with him, feel all too well the extent to which the prime minister and the defense minister are backing the chief of staff these days. There is no value to the calming telephone call Olmert made to Halutz once he realized the reporters accompanying him on his visit to the U.S. got the impression that he is in no rush to protect the chief of staff after the release of Doron Almog's report. Same with Peretz: the tone of his media-covered declaration that he backs Halutz sounds hollow. Backing means acting a certain way - not declarations; and in the way he relates to Halutz in practice, the defense minister does not give the impression that he trusts him.

This is the way it is with regard to other issues as well. Olmert visits northern Israel, two months after the war's end, and tells the citizens there: I promise you that it will be alright. Peretz asks Labor voters to trust that he is concerned for the weaker layers of society, after giving his support to the state budget presented to the Knesset. The Israel Defense Forces commanders declare that the military operations to end the Qassam rocket attacks are working. Reality insists on refuting their claims, but who are we to say that they are lying?