Monday, December 6, 2004

Iran’s relentless pursuit of a nuclear weapon is the biggest danger facing Israel, the Middle East and the world, a senior foreign-policy adviser to the Israeli government said yesterday.

“We have no doubt that Iran is trying to move ahead on building nuclear capability,” Zalman Shoval, a former ambassador to the United States, said in a luncheon meeting with reporters and editors at The Washington Times yesterday.

Since January 2002, when President Bush declared that Iran was part of an “axis of evil,” Iran — with Russian help — has been pursuing what it describes as a peaceful nuclear program. But the United States and others suspect that the nation’s real goal is to develop nuclear weapons.

The United States pushed a hard line on dismantling Iran’s nuclear program, but Europe balked. And in late November, the International Atomic Energy Agency adopted a resolution on a safeguards agreement with Iran, which includes surveillance cameras.

But Mr. Shoval, one of several foreign-policy advisers to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said yesterday he was skeptical of the European “step-by-step” plan.

“Iran is formally and ideologically committed to the destruction of Israel, and a nuclear Iran is an immense danger,” he said. “Iran is using the express elevator getting to the nuclear bomb.”

Mr. Shoval said this was not simply an issue for Israel, but one that puts the world at danger. He charged that Iran was “directly” involved in arming and training terrorists who attack Israel.

“Once Iran gets their hands on nuclear weapons and the delivery system, everyone in the Middle East will want one. It will be a completely new ballgame and a very dangerous one. If the world looks away from this, it will be a very tough awakening,” he said.

He said he had no knowledge of any Israeli plan to strike pre-emptively at Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Mr. Shoval, who served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 1990 to 1993 and again from 1998 to 2000, was in Washington to discuss Israeli-Palestinian relations at a seminar at the Brookings Institution.

He said that he planned to meet with several Bush administration officials in the National Security Council and that he had met with his “old friend” Undersecretary of State John Bolton, a pro-Israel hard-liner who has been mentioned as a possible successor to Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage.

Mr. Shoval said the Bush administration has “done the right thing” by refusing to push Israel into negotiations with the Palestinians while terrorist attacks continue. But with the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, he said, he is “fairly optimistic” that there is an opportunity to move forward on Israel’s plan to disengage from the Gaza Strip and the “road map” peace plan.

“We want to see a Palestinian side with a reformed leadership, more transparency, a civilian government, rule of law,” he said.

“If something like that really develops, it will create the foundation for a viable democratic Palestinian state. If all these things happen, we will have arrived at stage two of the road map, a Palestinian state with provisional borders.”

He said an Israeli-Egypt prisoner swap on Sunday that sent convicted Israeli spy Azzam Azzam home after eight years “was a positive sign, and we may see more.”

“Tunis, Morocco, perhaps one of the Gulf states will return to a better relationship [with Israel],” he said.

He said pressure from the Europeans — who are expected to offer Mr. Bush help in Iraq and U.S.-European rapprochement if he urges Israel to compromise more — would be counterproductive.

More useful, he said, would be if the Arab states used 1 percent or 2 percent of their recent $50 billion to $75 billion oil windfall to help rebuild the Palestinian economy.

“International conferences are never good for Israel, and in the foreseeable future, we will not be able to arrive at a permanent peace plan that the Palestinians can live with and we can live with. But this does not mean we cannot move forward,” he said.

“Hopefully, these guys will say, ‘Let’s not miss another chance,’ and work for Palestinian statehood in one form or another. Today, especially after Arafat, everyone understands [disengagement] is the only game in town.”

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