If Israel Acquiesces on Iran, World Will Follow Suit

Israel's ambiguity has failed to attract international support or deter Iran's drive for nuclear weapons.

Israel's strategy against Iran's nuclear program has failed. If there were any clandestine elements that could have bought some time, their effectiveness is waning. At the obvious, external level - the level of politics - the world was urged to rally behind the effort to block Iran from acquiring military nuclear capabilities using distinctly un-Israeli arguments, concerning the dangers of expanding the nuclear "club" to the breaking point; of escalating competition for control over the Persian Gulf; and of bringing Europe within the range of nuclear armed missiles. However, in its pretentiousness, this is a typical Israeli approach: to educate the "other" about what is good and important for him, so he will realize what he must do, which also happens to be what Israel wants. A great idea if only there were buyers.

Other countries, who seem to be terribly selfish, insist on deciding for themselves what constitutes a threat to them and how much they are willing to invest in dealing with it. An Iran with nukes troubles them a great deal, but not to the point of going to war to prevent Tehran from having them.

If Israel had thought it would stand shyly behind in the second row, looking over the shoulder of the Americans, the Europeans, the Saudis and others, as they put the brakes on the Iranian nuclear program, it was not to be. Since the early 1990s - dating back to Yitzhak Rabin and others, before Benjamin Netanyahu - there were those who thought that any moment the Iranians would develop nuclear capabilities. In substance, they were right, but they were very wrong in timing, to the point that they spread general doubt as to the credibility of the warnings from Israel. A major failure was the effort to convince Russia during the period of the Clinton administration (the Gore-Chernomyrdin Committee) to cease provision of technical assistance for the development of the nuclear plant in Bushehr. According to Russia's calculations, it's not necessarily bad if Washington and NATO are scared.

Without a global realization that a clear threat of an Israel Defense Forces operation against Iran exists, the effort to counter Tehran's acquisition of nuclear capabilities may dissolve. There is no such threat at this time: An Israeli operation is being taken into account, but the assumption is that it ultimately will not take place. President Barack Obama says all the right things, but without a sense of panic, without giving the Iranian question special priority and without successfully forming a global front against Tehran's nuclear program. The Iranians may conclude that when Obama reaches a crucial juncture, he will opt for restraint.

The common Israeli formula, which describes a military option as yet "another option on the table," is bankrupt and irrelevant. Option-shmoption: The rhetorical games surrounding Israel's ambiguous nuclear capabilities are nothing new; we have been hearing them from various quarters for the past 50 years.

The impression one gets from the statements of Israel's policymakers is that there is disagreement at the top over whether the Iranian threat is really existential (as believed by Netanyahu, Tzipi Livni, air force commander Ido Nechushtan, Mossad chief Meir Dagan), or not quite that serious (Ehud Barak). This is not a mere play on words. An "existential threat" is absolute and constitutes a casus belli. All other, relative threats can be negotiated.

Barak underwent what was perhaps a natural process on his way from commanding the Sayeret Matkal elite unit, to heading the entire IDF and to the Defense Ministry, with a stop in between as prime minister: He has replaced "results" with "cost." The daring man who initiated creative missions and challenged the decision-makers above him in the hierarchy is now nearly the last to make a final decision; he has become the expert at pointing out what could go wrong, and consequently has reservations about military operations. Irrespective of whether his assessment is correct, if the defense minister is suggesting that, after all is said and done, Israel will come to terms with a nuclear Iran, he strengthens the belief of the world, from Tehran to Washington, that this will indeed be the case.

In the clash of wills between two rivals, so far it is Iran's determination to acquire nuclear weapons that is being accepted as fact. By contrast, there is a lack of Israeli determination to act against the unique combination of the intention to eradicate and a willingness to tolerate weapons of mass destruction. The stuttering ambiguity provides no advantage: neither a deterrent against Iran, nor pressure on the rest of the world.

The situation needs to be expressed directly and clearly in Washington, to the administration, to Congress and to the American public. President Shimon Peres cannot foment such a change tomorrow, during his visit with Obama, but then Peres is not in a decision-making position. In fact, maybe Netanyahu isn't either.