- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2008

EXCLUSIVE:

TEL AVIV

Adjusting to the election of Barack Obama, some Israeli policymakers and analysts are now saying that talking to Iran might be a better way to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power than isolating it.

The tactical shift reflects anticipation that Mr. Obama will carry out his campaign pledge to engage Iran, as well as hope that more vigorous U.S. diplomacy - combined with the pinch of lower oil prices - might curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Support for a U.S. diplomatic boycott of Tehran has been the dominant Israeli approach for years. Israeli politicians have compared Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran to Nazi Germany in the 1930s - neglecting to mention that a cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, rules Iran, not Mr. Ahmadinejad, and that Iran has not invaded any neighboring countries.

Israeli politicians suggested prior to Mr. Obama’s election that talks would be a hopeless exercise in appeasement, but Israel’s chief of army intelligence said last week that talking could yield strategic benefits for Israel.

“Rapprochement with Iran, while insisting on clearly defined parameters for the halting of the Iranian nuclear program, isn’t necessarily negative,” Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin said at a Tel Aviv University lecture in memory of former Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. “If it succeeds, it will stop the Iranian nuclear program, and if it fails, it will strengthen the understanding that sanctions and the diplomatic efforts against Iran must be bolstered.”

Some analysts believe the unusual political comment from a military intelligence chief reflects an effort by Israelis to get on the same page with the incoming administration, rather than be seen as a potential spoiler.

“He [Mr. Obama] wants to begin diplomatically, and no one wants to fight that. Israel is quickly falling into line,” said Alon Liel, a former Foreign Ministry official. “There is a decision in the Israeli system that Obama’s Iran policy shouldn’t be viewed as an anti-Israeli move.”

In Washington Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told editors and columnists from The Washington Times and several other newspapers that he had talked with Mr. Obama during the campaign and again following Nov. 4 and came away convinced that the incoming president is committed to ensuring that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon.

“He is absolutely, without any doubt, against a nuclear Iran,” Mr. Olmert said, adding that Mr. Obama had a window of about a year to put his solution into place. Mr. Olmert pointedly declined to answer whether or when Israel might act on its own, possibly bombing Iranian facilities.

“Negotiations are important,” said Eldad Pardo, a professor in the Middle East studies department at Hebrew University. “If you want to go to war, you have to try everything else first. The problem is that time is short.”

Many in Israel believe Tehran could make enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon by the end of next year. That still leaves a window for economic pressure, combined with diplomacy.

Mr. Pardo said Mr. Obama’s global popularity and success in running a disciplined election campaign have convinced some Israelis that he is capable of building a more calculated and successful approach to Iran than President Bush.

Last week, Israeli President Shimon Peres told the Times of London that if the new president could unite the international community, dialogue with Iran could work.

“If there will be a united policy on Iran, and there is a new [lower] price for oil, then Iran will have to come to terms with a proportionate reality of our times,” he said.

Not all Israelis are changing their approach. Former Israeli army chief of staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya’alon told a group of Australian journalists last week that in addition to preparing a strike to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, Israel needs to consider promoting regime change.

He said that if Israel were forced to resort to a military attack to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capability, there would need to be follow-up to prevent the regime from rehabilitating itself, the Australian newspaper reported.

An aide to Gen. Ya’alon, who recently decided to run for parliament on the ticket of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, denied a report in a different Australian newspaper that the ex-general supports assassinating the Iranian president.

In recent years, Israel has enlisted foreign countries to put pressure on Iran while warning that the Jewish state reserved the right to act militarily and alone if it faced what it perceived as an existential threat.

However, Israeli threats of military action have been undercut by the difficulty of destroying an Iranian nuclear program that is widely dispersed, the havoc strikes could cause to an already fragile world economy and the likelihood that Iran would retaliate against the United States by targeting its forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported in August that the Bush administration turned down an Israeli request for military equipment that could help it attack Iran.

In addition, some here fear that an attack on Iran by Israel, an unacknowledged nuclear power, might only spur Iran to accelerate its program.

“There are those who think that the idea of Israel using military force against Iran is not very productive, and there is still something to be done in diplomatic contacts with Iran,” said Yossi Alpher, a national security specialist and co-editor of a progressive Web site, Bitterlemons.org.

Some Israelis still make the World War II comparison, despite the differences with today’s Middle East.

Mr. Obama “will have to choose in the next year whether to be [Neville] Chamberlain or [Winston] Churchill,” said Yuval Steinitz, a Likud member of the Knesset who aspires to be Israeli defense or foreign minister if Likud wins an upcoming election. He was referring to the British prime minister who sought to negotiate with Hitler and Chamberlain’s successor, Churchill, who led Britain during the war.

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli analyst who co-authored a biography of Mr. Ahmadinejad, said that although he was surprised to hear Mr. Yadlin’s support for talks, the comments represent a school of thought among Israeli policymakers.

“If Barack Obama can translate his international popularity into a diplomatic victory in negotiations with Iran, it will be to the benefit of Israel,” Mr. Javendanfar said. “If the U.S. establishes relations with Iran, it means leverage over Iran. And leverage is good.”

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