JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel has long been the wild card in debates on the Iranian nuclear program — a country that while formally outside negotiations, has lobbying clout given its strategic fears and penchant for pre-emptive strikes.
But Israeli officials, once quick to project military menace in the face of what Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has called an “existential threat”, are increasingly taking a softer public line on how to meet Iran’s refusal to halt uranium enrichment.
It appears that many Israelis have grudgingly decided that Iran is too tough an enemy for their armed forces to take on alone — and that the international community senses this too.
“The last thing Israel is interested in is an escalation or some military action against Iran,” said Avigdor Lieberman, the usually ultra-hawkish Israeli strategic affairs minister.
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who suggested a year ago that Israel consider attacking Iran in a mission akin to its 1981 air strike on Iraq’s atomic reactor, is now redirecting his rhetoric to calls for crippling Western sanctions on Tehran.
“There’s no question that if stiffer measures are needed, it’s better that the United States lead the way,” Netanyahu told foreign reporters last month.
Like its U.S. ally, Israel refuses to rule out pre-emptive strikes as a last-ditch means of curbing a nuclear program that Iran insists is peaceful.
But unlike with Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Iran’s nuclear facilities may be too distant, numerous and fortified for Israel to tackle. The sense of tactical limitation was reinforced, throughout the region and beyond, by last year’s inconclusive Israeli war against Lebanese Hezbollah guerillas.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that Israel has no viable military option on Iran, and is pinning its hopes on some sort of solution by the Americans,” said Alon Ben-David, Israel analyst for Jane’s Defense Weekly.
“But there are also a growing number of Israelis who think the country will just have to live with a nuclear-armed Iran,” he said.
Resigning itself to an Iranian bomb could spell a major credibility crisis for Israel, which was founded on the promise of preventing a “second Holocaust” and, to that end, is believed to have procured the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has fueled fears of a catastrophic regional conflict by denying the Nazi genocide took place and urging that the Jewish state be “wiped off the map”, though Tehran officials said this did not constitute a threat.
The tension is especially felt in war-wary Europe, which has robust trade ties with Iran. There have been recent European proposals for accommodating Iran by allowing it limited uranium enrichment, something anathema to the United States and Israel.
“The possibility of a preventive Israeli strike helps to concentrate European thinking on options for resolving the impending crisis before it would get to that stage,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for nuclear non-proliferation at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
At least one European leader, French President Jacques Chirac, has already spoken of a nuclear-armed Iran as a possible fait accompli. In a late-January interview that he later tried to retract, Chirac said Iran would not attempt a nuclear attack on Israel for fear that Tehran would be “razed” in response.
Went unmentioned in Chirac’s newspaper comments was the possibility that Israel might launch pre-emptive strikes on Iran.
Sam Gardiner, a retired U.S. air force colonel turned strategic analyst, noted that such preemption would only apply to Iran’s potential nuclear weaponry. It would not put paid to conventional Iranian arms such as long-range missiles capable of targeting Israel as well as U.S. interests in the Gulf.
“Israel is probably capable of attacking the main nuclear facilities,” Gardiner said. “The problem is that they could not also attack the Iranian retaliation capabilities.”
“My sense is that U.S. thinking is moving more and more in the direction of believing that if you are going to strike, you have to also take the stinger from the bee,” he said.
Foreign analysts agree that, given Israel’s close U.S. ties, it would have to coordinate any attack on Iran with Washington.
Whether U.S. approval would be forthcoming is in doubt. Perceived adventurism by Israel would risk undermining the Arab coalition that the Bush administration, already mired in Iraq, is trying to cobble together against Iran’s nuclear program.
Then again, if Israel is seen to have gone it alone it could serve U.S. interests while limiting the diplomatic fallout.
“I’d rather the Israelis bomb the Iranians, so we can blame them. If America does it, we will be blamed,” the New Yorker magazine quoted a former Saudi diplomat as saying.