From Israel, It Looks Different

The Iranian threat is perceived as intolerable. Anyone who thinks otherwise does not dare speak out openly, at least not until it emerges that either there is a way to stop them or it is already too late.

This is the assessment of the situation at the top diplomatic and military levels in Israel: Iran is moving, unhindered, toward a nuclear bomb. Blocking it with economic sanctions has failed, mainly because Russia, Germany and Italy refuse to stop doing business with the Iranians. Two options remain on the table: to come to terms with Iran's nuclearization because there is no alternative, or to stop it by force.

The United States has military capability, but there is opposition within the administration to an action in Iran. The chances of an American attack appear small; the final decision will be taken by President George W. Bush. In Jerusalem they are finding it difficult to assess what will weigh most in the president's thinking - the strategic and political considerations against another war after the imbroglio in Iraq or his belief it is incumbent upon him to free the world from the nightmare of nuclear weapons in the hands of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Recent weeks have seen a lively debate in the U.S. about what should be done regarding Iran - either dialogue, which would mean coming to terms with the nuclear program, or war. American strategists are talking about "the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion" and are looking for a third way between attack and acceptance. In Israel, there is no such debate, except within a narrow circle of those who are knowledgeable and interested. Israel, it seems, is waiting for Bush's decision, which will be taken during the coming year, before it decides to attack Iran itself.

The public debate in America reveals the different outlooks of the decision-makers in Jerusalem and in Washington. From here, the Iranian threat looks much more palpable and scarier and the response much simpler and more focused. Presumably, Iran, like Iraq and Syria in their turn, will find it hard to respond. Perhaps it will launch some missiles at Israel plus Hezbollah rockets from Lebanon, and perhaps it will initiate a terror attack on an Israeli target abroad. This would be painful but bearable and would be perceived as a justified price for getting rid of an existential threat.

In American parlance, "attacking Iran" sounds like a World War III, as Bush warned on Wednesday: weeks of bombing Iran's military and civilian infrastructures, following attempts at dialogue and an open ultimatum that would be followed by the blocking of oil supplies to the West and acts of terror in which thousands of Americans are killed, if not an all-Muslim jihad against America that lasts for years. Of course, the danger of destabilizing the world order and economic destruction in the West seems excessive in the face of a few nuclear bombs in Iraq.

When Israelis talk about "the point of no return" in the Iranian nuclear program, they are referring to "crossing the technological threshold." That is, the moment the Iranian engineers and scientists get hold of the knowledge of how to produce nuclear weapons and are able to replicate it, even if the existing installations are destroyed by bombs or shut down in the wake of diplomatic negotiations. The American red line is the more distant date, when Iran has an operational bomb.

The differences in outlook are understandable. Someone who lives in Chicago or Miami can live comfortably with an Iranian bomb, just as he lived under the Soviet threat. An inhabitant of Tel Aviv, whom the president of Iran is threatening to deport to Alaska or Canada, must be far more worried.

"The world" is aware of these differences and in its refusal of sanctions and serious organization against Iran, it is quietly pushing Israel toward a decision to attack. The international silence that greeted the action in Syria could be interpreted as encouragement of Israeli muscle-flexing. The exchanges of threats between Israel and Iran have met indifference in the international community, at least until Bush's speech on Wednesday, in comparison to the concern and efforts focused on the Palestinian issue. Perhaps an American expert who has been following events for years was on target when he said: "You h ave a million and a half Palestinians in Gaza who could march on Tel Aviv tomorrow, and you're worried about nuclear weapons in Iran?"

However, from Israel it looks different: In the eyes of the decision-makers, we will manage somehow with the Palestinians. But the Iranian threat is perceived as intolerable. Anyone who thinks otherwise does not dare speak out openly, at least not until it emerges that either there is a way to stop the Iranians, or that it is already too late.