Washington DC – On the eve of his departure from political life, outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Olmert delivered a stinging parting shot – putting under question not only the wisdom of holding on to Palestinian land, but also the feasibility of an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“We have to make a decision, one that goes against all our instincts, against our collective memory,” he told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. Recognizing that no other Israeli leader ever had uttered these words publicly, Olmert went on to declare that “Israel must withdraw from almost all, if not all” of the West Bank to achieve peace.
On Iran, Olmert argued that Israel had lost its “sense of proportion” when stating that it would deal with Iran militarily. “What we can do with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese, we cannot do with the Iranians,” Olmert said, in stark contradiction to his own earlier warnings on Iran as well as the rhetoric of many of his hawkish cabinet members. “Let’s be more modest, and act within the bounds of our realistic capabilities,” he cautioned.
Olmert’s interview dashed the hopes of neoconservatives in Washington hoping for an Israeli post-November surprise through the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities. With the U.S. facing a financial crisis and Israel’s lacking the “proportions” to take on Iran, the risk for military confrontation with Iran in the last months of the Bush Administration has decreased significantly, according to most analysts.
Olmert’s statement may signal a long-overdue shift towards Israel’s Plan B on Iran. Israel’s first preference had been to pressure the U.S. to exercise its own military option on Iran, and to prevent any diplomatic breakthrough that might cause Washington to accept some level of Iranian uranium-enrichment capability. In this regard, Israeli warnings of its readiness to attack Iran if the U.S. declined to do so served primarily to pressure Washington to launch a military strike. Talk about the Israeli military option was aimed at keeping the American military option on the table.
Since the mid-1990s, a key tenet of Israel’s foreign policy has been to sound alarm bells on Tehran. Originally, the aim was to prevent any thaw between the U.S. and Iran out of a fear that Israeli security interests would be sacrificed in a potential U.S.-Iran deal. Plan A was to nip this in the bud by undermining efforts to pursue diplomacy in the first place.
This policy did not lack critics, however. An internal Israeli Iran-committee in the early 1990s led by former commander of the Israeli air force, David Ivry, concluded that the aggressive Israeli rhetoric had prompted Iran to turn its focus towards Israel. Iran has enough problems in the region, the committee argued, there was no need to make Israel shine any brighter on Iran’s radar.
As Iran’s power grew in the region, Israeli concerns grew accordingly. The more Iran could present itself as an indispensible actor in the region, the greater the risk of a U.S.-Iran accommodation. Left with few good options, and an unwillingness to consider how a U.S.-Iran deal could change Iran’s behavior towards Israel, the inclination in Israel was to intensify the very policy its Iran-committee had warned against.
But while Israel’s Iran hawks argued against U.S.-Iran diplomacy, they had a hard time digesting the Bush Administration’s opposition to Israeli-Syrian diplomacy. The contradiction in the Israeli position was evident during AIPAC’s conference earlier this summer. Ephraim Sneh – a leading Iran hawk of Israel’s Labor Party – argued passionately against U.S.-Iran diplomacy while making an equally passionate case for diplomacy Syria. His justification was that in case of war, the Israeli public must know that every stone had been turned before their young men and women were sent to battle. On Iran, however, Sneh did not acknowledge the same justification.
Olmert’s valedictory interview may be the first small steps towards a Plan B on Iran – one that takes as its point of departure the new regional realities: A balance of power that has shifted away from Israel, and an Iran that is unlikely to unlearn the technology of enriching uranium. Israel now needs a way out of the prison of its own rhetoric. Repeating statements that a nuclear Iran is “unacceptable” and using a rhetoric that creates an air of inevitability of war has left the Jewish State with no real options. A more nuanced rhetoric on Iran may have the down-side of reducing pressure on the U.S. to act – “If we don’t talk about Iran, the world will forget about Iran,” as Israeli Iran expert David Menashri put it – but has the up-side of enabling new options to emerge for the Jewish state.
Warning about being “boxed into the corner,” a recent Haaretz editorial offered a clear break from Israel’s Plan A: “The best chance of calming the atmosphere and reducing the threat lies in starting negotiations between the United States and Iran… [I]t is the only route not yet tried and is likely to help moderate Iranian policy. Israel must encourage an American rapprochement with Iran, with the understanding that this will serve the Israeli interest as well.” And in a video by the Jewish Council for Education and Research, several high-ranking Israeli generals throw their weight behind U.S.-Iran diplomacy as a path towards advancing Israeli security.
Still, in spite of the many rising voices against Israel’s losing approach on Iran, the Jewish state is a long way from discarding its Plan A.
Unlike Olmert who recognized the unfeasibility of Plan A while leaving office, Israel’s new Prime Minister, Tzipi Livni, may enter office with Plan B in sight. She rejects the idea that Israel “will not be able to live” with a nuclear Iran and says Israel must deal with the challenges it faces. Though Livni won’t go as far as Barack Obama in promising direct diplomacy with Tehran, she may help Israel find a few more options on Iran.
Trita Parsi is the author of “Treacherous Alliance – The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the U.S.“, a Silver Medal Recipient of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Arthur Ross Book Award, the most significant award for a book on foreign affairs.