Israel Diary - I
Belligerent Iran changes West Asia alliances
If there is one topic of conversation that overshadows everything else in Israel today it is next month's US-sponsored peace talks at Annapolis. There is some amount of cynicism among intellectuals and right-of-centre politicians who believe that this will be another wasted effort because the Palestinians will not settle for anything less than what Yasser Arafat demanded and was refused. But the overwhelming mood is one of optimism. Friday's meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the former's residence in Jerusalem, during which they are believed to have discussed ways and means of ensuring Annapolis does not become just another marker along the tortuous road to a negotiated settlement, is an indication of how seriously both the Israelis and the Palestinians are taking the conference.
But for all his efforts to focus on a possible joint declaration of principles if not an agreement of sorts, Olmert is a distracted man -- not so much by the cases of alleged corruption piling up against him as by Iran's accelerated nuclear programme and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's relentless assault on Jews and his threats to exterminate Israel. Indeed, in Israel's security establishment, Hamas and Hizbullah have taken a back seat as strategists race against time to put together a plan to stymie Iran's soaring ambitions. There are apprehensions that the over-emphasis on Annapolis among the political class could deflect attention from Iran which would work to Tehran's advantage.
"The greatest danger is that Annapolis might be considered a substitute for, or become a distraction from, the overarching requirement for any peace process to have a chance: Forcing Iran to back down," the Jerusalem Post comments in its weekend edition, "without that, nothing achieved at Annapolis -- or in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, for that matter -- has a hope of sticking over the long term. By the same token, a turning back of the Iranian challenge could significantly increase the prospects for success on all of these fronts."
Shia Iran is being increasingly perceived as trying to dislodge the traditional Sunni Arab power base in West Asia, stretching from the Gulf states to the Suez Canal. This is bad news for Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt; on the other hand, Shias in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq are delighted. A nuclear armed Iran, therefore, is as much a threat to Israel as its hitherto Arab foes. Strangely, together they now form a putative alliance: Israeli officials refer to Saudi Arabia as a "moderate Arab state" while Riyadh, Amman and Cairo put pressure on Abbas and his Fateh to cut a deal with the Jewish state so that there are no distractions while dealing with "Islamofascist" Iran.
Just how far opinion has shifted in Arab palaces, if not on Arab streets, can be gauged from the non-response to the Israeli air strike on a Syrian target on September 6. It is believed, though there has been no official statement, leave alone a confirmation, that Israeli bombers crossed into Syrian air space and flattened a nuclear "facility". There are various versions floating around in Jerusalem about the nature of this "facility" -- it may have been an upcoming nuclear reactor or a storage facility for Iranian nuclear material. There is some speculation that Iran had shifted some of its men and material to Syria to ensure a foreign military intervention does not entirely neutralise Tehran's nuclear capability. Israel decided not to take a chance and bombed the facility into oblivion.
"The Government of Israel has neither said anything, nor has it denied news reports about the September 6 strike. But we do know something happened on that day, as do the Arabs. What is surprising is the deafening silence of the Arab world," says Eran Lerman, director of the Israel office of American Jewish Committee (AJC). This is seen as an endorsement of the Israeli air strike by Sunni Arab states that have never quite been at ease with Syria since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser's disastrous experiment with a "United Arab Republic".
Those in the security establishment who advocate a tough line with Iran interpret the Arab silence over September 6 as indicative of Iran's isolation in the region. Ahmadinejad is seen as dreaming of "regional hegemony"; others have ganged up against him, displaying rare unity, more so against an Islamic nation. "The only protests we heard came from Syria's only friends ... which is less than half of Lebanon," Lerman adds, referring to the Shias of Lebanon.
Lerman brushes aside all suggestions of approaching Iran's claim -- that its nuclear programme has nothing to do with acquisition of nuclear warheads -- with a snort. "Iran's claim is a fantasy. Believing in Iran is like believing in the tooth fairy," he says. Apart from its ambition to emerge as the predominant regional power, Iran, Lerman adds, is driven by its "ideological commitment". In terms of technological abilities, defence posture and intelligence capability, Israel is far better placed than Iran. "But we have very little time," he says.
So, will Israel take the first step towards neutralising Iran's nuclear programme as it did in Osirak, destroying Iraq's nascent nuclear facility on June 7, 1981, a week before it was to go "live"? Was the bombing mission in Syria a dry run? Lerman avoids a direct answer. He only points out that Iran poses a threat to everybody and everybody should react. He has a point: A nuclear armed Iran is as alarming for India as for Israel, or, for that matter, the US and Europe.
Just how advanced is Iran's nuclear programme? A senior official at Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs says, "We are not sure whether we know enough... it could be more advanced than we think." His assessment is alarming: Iran should be able to achieve complete enrichment and produce a device by the second half of 2009. This has made "pragmatic, moderate Arab regimes sit up and take notice of Tehran's ulterior motives". With Hizbullah on the ascendant in Lebanon, Syria fortifying itself with new weapons (of "Russian origin") and Hamas having established a line of communication with Tehran, not to mention Shias becoming more aggressive by the day in Iraq, "pragmatic", if not "moderate", Sunni Arab states have reason to feel as concerned as Israel, if not more.
It is this shared concern that has led to what Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, recently voted the most influential woman in her country, describes as "new camps and new alliances". Sitting in her office in downtown Tel Aviv, listening to her outline Israel's threat perception of Iran, I am mesmerised by her body language. It's not for nothing that she has been nominated the chief Israeli interlocutor for the latest peace dialogue. "We need to stop Iran. It is a threat to the region ... It can destabilise the region more than the Israel-Palestine conflict," she says in a matter-of-fact manner.
It's not a proposition, but a statement of intent. "Sanctions are effective but they take time to have an impact. And right now time is of essence," she says, and, after a pause, adds disdainfully, "the world lacks determination. It is unaware of the consequences, the domino effect (of Iran going nuclear)."
So, what are the options? The full import of Thursday's sanctions, imposed by the US on Iran, is yet to be known, but they have been welcomed by Israel. Once again, there is a deafening silence in the Arab world. But what if Russia and China refuse to play ball? Then who shall bell the cat? "At this point of time it's tempting to say we'll take care (of the problem)," says an ebullient Lerman. Which means a repeat of Operation Opera that put paid to Saddam Hussein's dreams of acquiring nuclear power.
But will the Israelis be audacious enough to bomb Natanz? Maybe yes if Annapolis goes well and the Arabs have something to show for their exertions. And if that doesn't happen, we can look forward to a dangerous West Asia destabilising global power equations and throwing the world economy into a tizzy. A breakthrough, no matter how small, at Annapolis could prevent this from happening. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice realises this, as does Livni.