Tuesday, December 12, 2006

JERUSALEM — Israeli officials yesterday quietly welcomed a decision by several Persian Gulf states to consider a nuclear energy program as evidence the region’s Sunni Arab governments are becoming more open in their opposition to a common enemy — Iran.

While historically hostile to any step that could lead to an “Islamic” nuclear bomb, Israelis are weighing that risk against the possibility of an implicit alliance with neighboring Sunni Arab states that share their concerns about the prospect of a nuclear-armed Shi’ite Iran.

The Washington Times reported yesterday that Sunni-Shi’ite fighting in Iraq is already spilling over into the region, with elements in Saudi Arabia and Iran offering financial and other backing to competing Iraqi factions.

Leaders of six Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, ordered a feasibility study of a joint atomic energy program Sunday at the conclusion of a two-day summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh.

The oil-rich countries, all predominantly Sunni Arab states, made it clear that their declaration was intended to prod the West into stopping Shi’ite Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.

In Jerusalem, where authorities see an unspoken alliance taking shape between Israel and some Sunni states, officials said yesterday they viewed “positively” the increasing pressure from the Gulf states.

“This move is directed against Iran,” an official who requested anonymity told the Jerusalem Post. “In the past, these states only talked about the Iranian nuclear issue using code words, but now they are coming out of the closet in a big way, and this is an example.”

That assessment was echoed by Abdelaziz Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. “They are trying to say that if the Iranian program continues, [the West] will oblige us to become nuclear-capable too.”

The GCC is made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. Its statement said the GCC had commissioned a study “to set up a common program in the area of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”

Iran also insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but it is widely assumed to be seeking nuclear weapons. Israeli officials say that non-Gulf Sunni nations, like Egypt and Jordan, share the GCC’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel has felt increasingly exposed to the Iranian nuclear threat as Europe and even the United States appear to be stepping back from a confrontation with Tehran, whose leaders have called for Israel’s destruction. But it has been able to draw some comfort from the convergence of interests with the Sunni states, which are alarmed by the rise of a powerful Shi’ite “crescent” running from Iran through Iraq to the Hezbollah stronghold in southern Lebanon.

During last summer’s Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal termed the Hezbollah attack that sparked it a “reckless adventure,” and a senior Saudi cleric issued a religious edict condemning the Iranian-backed Shi’ite group.

In a major speech last month, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he looked with favor on the Saudi peace plan proposed in 2002 as a basis for peace negotiations, a plan that Israel had until then shrugged off.

Under the plan, Israel would withdraw from all territories captured in the 1967 Six-Day War, recognize a Palestinian state and provide a “just” solution for Palestinian refugees. In return, all Arab states would recognize Israel and establish “normal” relations with it.

Also yesterday, two generals appeared to contradict each other in respect to persistent press reports that the Israeli army is preparing for war with Syria and perhaps Hezbollah next summer.

Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, the No. 2 man in Israeli military intelligence, told the Cabinet that Syrian President Bashar Assad had stepped up production of long-range missiles and ordered anti-tank missiles moved closer to the border in anticipation of war.

“He is preparing the Syrian army for the possibility of a military conflict with Israel,” said Gen. Baidatz. “On the other hand, he is not ruling out the possibility of reaching a political settlement with Israel.”

However, a member of the General Staff, speaking anonymously, said there is no indication from either Hezbollah or Syria that they are preparing for imminent war. “All the talk of war in the summer of 2007 is irresponsible,” he said.

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