Israel has seldom been as quiet on Iran as in
the last three months.
Though Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has pursued a policy of reducing Israel's
visible involvement in the Western campaign to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions
"work hard and say less," as he put it in March much indicates
that the unusual Israeli silence goes beyond just reducing Tel Aviv's observable
pressures on Washington to pursue a hard line on Iran. At the heart of it lies
a reassessment of calculations gone amiss.
Israel was the first state to sound the alarm about Iran's nuclear program.
Back in late 1991, in the aftermath of the geopolitical earthquake that shook
the region with the fall of communism and the Persian Gulf War, Israeli analysts
argued that the Iraqi decline had "created a power vacuum that Iran, motivated
by Pan-Islamic and hegemonic inclinations, was eager to fill" through its
A few months later, Labor Party leader Shimon Peres told French television
that Iran's nuclear striving made it the greatest threat to regional peace.
According to Israeli warnings to the international community at the time, Iran
would be armed with a nuclear bomb by 1999.
Israel's public outcry against Iran made it shine brighter on Tehran's radar.
Still, even critics of Israel's public campaign against Iran concede that absent
these efforts, the Iranian nuclear file may never have attracted the attention
of the international community.
But as Israel increased pressure on Washington and the international community
to press hard against Iran Tehran's "nuclear program is no longer
just Israel's problem but the world's problem," then-Foreign Minister Sylvan
Shalom declared it has become increasingly clear that its predictions
have gone awry.
As the Iranian nuclear standoff has taken its turns and twists, the initial
Israeli calculation of either forcing an Iranian capitulation through U.S. political
and economic pressure, or if worse came to worst by eliminating
the program through clean and surgical military strikes, have all proven to
be pipe-dreams, primarily due to the disastrous consequences of the Iraq war.
Eager to take advantage of Washington's quagmire in Iraq, Tehran has defied
every red line the U.S. and the West have put in front of it, including the
zero-enrichment demand. Even Vice President Dick Cheney's threats of "meaningful
consequences" if Iran continued on its path failed to deter Tehran, which
was clearly in no mood to capitulate.
In addition, the Iraq experience has shown that no "clean and surgical"
military option exists. Even though the military dimension itself may not be
too complex, Washington is poorly placed to deal with the political aftermath
in the region. Rather, increasing the pressure on Iran is more likely to lead
to a prolonged and bloody conflict that may very well engulf the entire region
This scenario drastically differs from the situation it faced three years ago
when the U.S. entered Iraq. This time around, the Jewish state will likely not
be able to sit comfortably on the sidelines while the U.S. neutralizes one of
its most potent regional foes.
According to Martin Indyk of the Brookings Institution, the Israelis "assume
they'll be struck first in retaliation by Iran." In fact, a top Revolutionary
Guards commander, Gen. Mohammad Dehghani, said as much to the Iranian Student
News Agency earlier in May. "We have announced that wherever [in Iran]
America does make any mischief, the first place we target will be Israel,"
By threatening retaliation against Israel, Iran increases the cost of Israel's
pressure on the U.S. while framing the conflict as a U.S.-Israeli aggression
against an Islamic state by dragging the Jewish state into the fighting.
Saddam Hussein sought to do the same in 1991 when he hurled 34 Scuds against
Israel. Patience prevailed in Tel Aviv at that time, primarily due to an unwillingness
to break apart the international coalition the first George H.W. Bush administration
had carefully assembled. This time around, Washington will likely not have much
of a coalition behind it, making the voices of patience in Israel less influential.
Israel does not take these Iranian warnings lightly. According to Israel's
own intelligence, Iranian capabilities in Lebanon via Hezbollah are considerable,
and the Iranian presence in the Palestinian territories has increased significantly
over the last few years. Though Iran's military is unlikely to pose a major
challenge to Israel, its unconventional capabilities can still cause much damage
to an already war-weary Israeli population.
These unforeseen developments have had a deep impact on Israeli calculations.
The Olmert government's priority is disengagement from the Palestinians, and
not to embroil Israel in a regional war with Iran. Israel's support for the
current George W. Bush administration's unprecedented decision to open talks
with the Iranians must be seen in this context.
The policy shift was discussed during Olmert's visit to Washington earlier
in May, and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni expressed support for the decision
in a statement released only hours after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's
press conference on May 31.
"Israel supports the U.S. efforts in this matter," she said. Livni's
statement stood in stark contrast to Israel's long-standing hesitation about
Israel's strategic reassessment may not yet have affected all of Israel's strong
supporters in Washington, even though Olmert privately asked Jewish groups to
lower their profile on the issue. The American-Israel Pubic Affairs Committee,
for instance, remains at the forefront of pushing for the Iran Freedom Support
Act in the U.S. Senate, which risks sabotaging the sensitive negotiations with
Iran even before they begin, according to administration officials.
Still, rumblings in the U.S. Jewish community reveal that Olmert's message
largely fell on receptive ears. As the unpopularity of the Iraq war has peaked,
many in the Jewish community fear that the U.S. public will turn their anger
toward Israel. Perceptions of close ties between Bush administration neoconservatives
and the Israeli Likud Party, as well as Israel's support for the Iraq war, fuel
these fears and render a tough stance on Iran even more difficult.
Jewish organizations have no interest in becoming "the lobby for war with
Iran," one official told the Forward in June.
These factors all amount to a Gordian knot for the Jewish state and the U.S.
Jewish community alike: How to respond to Iran's nuclear advances without increasing
the risk for a disastrous war and Israel's visibility, on the one hand, and
without revealing Israel's inability to face the Iranian challenge without the
U.S., on the other. For now, there's silence from Tel Aviv.