Sunday, December 09, 2007

Is the end of Israel near?

With Iran a potential producer of nuclear arms, is the future of Israel in “existential” danger?

Frankly, the jury is out. And no one knows the real answer, no matter what they say. But if sixteen U.S. intelligence agencies claim that Iran stopped their attempts to produce nuclear weapons back in 2003, then who has the data to dispute it?

Israel’s military intelligence does. They loudly dispute the U.S. conclusions.

Since the release of the report, the Israeli press has been filled with the analysis of the U.S. spy agencies findings. Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Bolton, a hawk who has begun to criticize the Bush administration, believes the report and its release is more political than either strategic or diplomatic.

By announcing that Iran neither possessed nor strive to possess a nuclear weapon after 2003, the Bush administration has in effect taken away a cause for the USA to strike at Iran. The Bush White House has simply pushed the attack on Iran onto the next President’s agenda.

Does this new position by the U.S. administration mean that they want Israel to go ahead and strike at Iran single-handed? Hard to tell. Let’s look at the activity in and out of Israel recently. The Chief of Staff of the U.S. Armed Forces is planning a visit to Israel. U.S. President Bush is planning a trip to Israel. Other U.S. big shots have been coming and going.

What’s all the fuss about? Is this a precursor to Israel striking Iran? Israel needs codes to fly over enemy territory, codes that let the enemy know that Israel isn’t after them; codes that let the Americans know that the Israeli jets in the sky are friendly, and not out to strike an American aircraft carrier or army base. Are these US big shots coming into Israel armed with battle plans and codes which Israel needs to fly over Jordan, Syria and Iraq without getting shot out of the sky by US warplanes? Are they armed with information on the location of the nuclear facilities that they plan to pass on to Israel?

If anyone knows the answers, they’re not talking, yet.

But Israelis are not convinced that Iran has turned into a passive witness to history. Polls in Israel show a distinct distrust for Iran. Polls in America also show that no one really believes Iran is not developing weapons.

"The American report ... is the last thing that will allay Israel's fears," said Israeli cabinet minister Eli Yishai, at the outset of the weekly cabinet meeting. "The Iranian threat is real, and Iran's intentions will never change. We must not allow ourselves to lower our level of alertness.”

According to informed sources, Israel is now concerned that the pressure by countries like China and Russia to impose sanctions on Iran will recede. Israel believes Russia, China and the Gulf States should impose penalties on Iran for continuing its nuclear program. Even U.S. Defense Secretary Gates has called for imposing penalties on Iran.

According to published reports, China and Russia, both members of the United Nations Security Council, have said that the need for sanctions against Iran should be reevaluated in light of the report.

So what is this new report all about? A few months back President Bush was talking about World War III. Now he’s supporting the report saying Iran is a toothless tiger.

According to the Haaretz newspaper, “U.S. observers from the right and left have told Haaretz that the report, released a week ago, would have no impact on U.S. public opinion or its effect will erode, adding that its deficiencies would become increasingly apparent.”

Haaretz added that US experts are also split on the issue. “The experts discuss whether the report's authors formulated it as they did because they want to stop the Bush administration from attacking Iran, or because they were simply unaware of the way the report would be received.”

Meanwhile, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said that Iran had been cleared of blame to a certain extent, and that the report gives Iran a window of opportunity to solve the crisis.

But the Israeli press says that the Israeli diplomatic effort will focus on preserving a united international front against Iran, and ensuring that the front does not crumble in the wake of the U.S. report.

"Even if there is a 10-percent chance of Iran attaining a nuclear bomb in 2009, we need to view this with the utmost seriousness," a government source in Jerusalem said.

Some analysts say that the report snatches the political agenda out of the hands of Israel’s opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, of the Likud. Netanyahu has been blasting away at Iran in the press, claiming that only a strike against Iran could protect Israel. The report neutralizes Netanyahu, making his rivals, Ehud Barak of Labor and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Kadima more popular should elections come about suddenly, which seems highly unlikely.

Some pundits say that the US assessment of Iran’s nuclear capabilities takes the pressure off of Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. The logic is that if the US has backed off of pushing Iran to stop their lethal nuclear program, Israel can back off implementing the “road map” discussed last week at Annapolis.

So, in some ways this US report strengthens PM Olmert’s hand. He is now free to ignore the US on the Palestinian issue, since they are ignoring Israel’s deep concern about Iran’s nuclear plans. Also, by the USA stepping back from an imminent strike against Iran, this eliminate the risk of a war between the US and Iran and who knows who else that might have joined in the fray, Olmert now finds himself free to carry out domestic plans, strengthen his position in the Knesset, and continue a slow but steady rise in the popularity contest.

Some also believe that the new US position, stepping back from rhetoric most thought would lead to an attack on Iran, would send the price of a barrel of oil back to a reasonable level and succeed in calming now jittery financial markets in Israel, the US and around the world.

Will Israel strike Iran without the US approval? Certainly not. Is the US about to give that approval? Maybe. Can Israel succeed in a strike against Iran without the US behind it both in words and deeds? Certainly not. So, unless President Bush changes his mind, again, the odds of a strike against Iran during the remainder of the Bush Presidency are not favorable.

But given that Israel is prone to surprise attacks, and plans that are so audacious no one would ever conceive of them but some cowboys in a basement in the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, the truth is, anything is possible. But not everything is probable.

Most analysts agree that if Iran doesn’t stop its progress to a nuclear weapon today, Iran will get stopped, one day. Except now the Iranians have time to breath a little before the blast comes, and contemplate their options.