- 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.

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