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 nuclear ambitions.
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 including Israel.
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," he said.
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 U.S.-Iran talks.
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.