Israeli Aides Warn U.S. Not To Drop Ball on Iran

WASHINGTON — As Israeli-Iranian tensions mount, Jerusalem is increasingly concerned that the Bush administration is not doing enough to block Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The American-Israeli disagreement over Iran policy is just one of several that has emerged in recent weeks, the Forward has learned.

The tensions were visible last week in Washington, during the semi-annual "strategic dialogue" between Israeli and American security officials. Although the talks were generally harmonious, they also exposed some stark disagreements, sources said.

During their meetings in Washington, Israeli officials voiced concern over signs that the Bush administration is considering a policy of regime change in Syria — a development which Israel fears could unleash chaos and a more dangerous situation than the status quo. Some officials in Israel reportedly are still taken aback by what they depict as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's heavy-handed brokering of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement over the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt (for story, please see Page 9).

But for Israel and American Jewish groups, the biggest concern is what they describe as the Bush administration's failure to assume a leadership role on Iran, even after it became clear the European-led negotiations with Tehran were failing to produce an agreement.

"What we have seen is that for more than two years... the U.S. contracted this issue to the Europeans — and the only result is that Iranians have gained two years to get closer to the completion of their nuclear cycle, which by many estimates is only months away," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "It is a message to every rogue state that you can diddle around with the Europeans and the United States, and in the meanwhile create a new reality."

The Europeans, he said, still approach the Iran question with "appeasement and weakness," while having "no game plan" for decisive action.

At the strategic talks in Washington, Israel complained that American officials agreed to delay referring Iran to the United Nations Security Council for sanctions regarding Tehran's nuclear program.

Later in the week, on November 30, the country's most influential pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, took the highly unusual step of issuing a statement criticizing the Bush administration. Aipac typically avoids public criticism of the administration, particularly when it comes to this White House, which Jewish groups feel is bent on punishing critics by denying them access to policymakers.

In its November 28 statement, Aipac condemned the administration for agreeing to give Russia a chance to negotiate a plan under which Iran would be allowed to enrich uranium under international supervision to make sure that its nuclear material is not used for military purposes. Aipac expressed concern that giving Iran more time to negotiate rather than immediately referring the country to the U.N. Security Council may "facilitate Iran's quest for nuclear weapons." The statement warned that giving Iran yet another chance to manipulate the international community "poses a severe danger to the United States and our allies, and puts America and our interests at risk."

An Aipac spokesman denied that the statement was coordinated with the Israeli government. A spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington said that the statement did not necessarily reflect Israel's position.

Israel is not looking for the United States to topple the regime in Tehran or launch a military attack against Iran, Israeli officials and American experts say. Instead, what Israeli officials say they have wanted for years is for the United States to lead an international campaign to isolate the Islamic republic and slap it with sanctions. Israeli officials say that the international community has a variety of options short of military action at its disposal.

Israeli officials, sources said, were surprised by reports that rather than take the lead in pressuring Iran, the Bush administration instructed its ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khaklilzad, to open a dialogue with Iran's ambassador there. In addition, Israeli officials were also upset by Washington's restrained reaction to the deal that Russia is finalizing to sell Tehran more than $1 billion worth of anti-aircraft missiles, which could be used to help Iran protect its nuclear facilities against a possible air strike.

Recent public comments by several senior Israeli officials — including the Israeli military's chief of staff and the head of military intelligence — fueled speculation of a connection between Aipac's statement and Israel's growing anxiety over what it views as Iran's methodical push for nuclear weapons.

During a press briefing Sunday, the Israeli military's chief of staff, Dan Halutz, said that letting the Iranians escape international pressure "encourages them to continue their nuclear project." He added that, "the political means that are used by the Europeans and the U.S. to convince the Iranians to stop the project will not succeed."

Israel's military intelligence chief, Major General Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash, warned last week that time is running out and said that the international community's diplomatic efforts to reverse Iran's project will become futile by March 2006. Several Knesset members, who were briefed by Ze'evi-Farkash, told Israeli reporters that they interpreted his comments as cautioning that after that point, only military power could block Iran's nuclear pursuit.

The possibility of military action against Iran has already become fodder in Israel's heated election campaign. Earlier this week former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — widely expected to emerge as Likud's candidate for prime minister — argued that "everything" must be done to block Iran and said that "this is the Israeli government's primary obligation."

"If it is not done by the current government," Netanyahu said, "I plan to lead the next government to stop the Iranians." His comments were widely interpreted as a swipe at Prime Minister Sharon, who had urged the West to step forward on Iran, saying that Israel "will not lead" the efforts to block Tehran's nuclear quest.

The escalating Israeli rhetoric elicited an immediate reply from the spokesman of Iran's foreign ministry, who threatened a "devastating" reaction to an Israeli military strike.

Some pro-Israel activists who are unhappy with the administration's approach attribute it largely to the American presence in Iraq. "The administration doesn't have any answers of its own on Iran," said Morris Amitay, a former executive director of Aipac who now heads the Washington Political Action Committee, a prominent pro-Israel lobbying group. "With its hands full in Iraq, it let some of the other countries take the lead in trying to deal with the problem as a path of least resistance."

This view, according to a senior official with a major Jewish organization, is shared by many in the Jewish community. "Frankly, as I hear from many Israeli officials: America picked the wrong adversary to fight in the Gulf, and the war against Iraq is now restraining it from leading a diplomatic campaign — let alone a military one — on Iran," the Jewish communal official said.

A senior congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed the same frustration over the lack of American leadership last week. Paraphrasing an ancient teaching of Rabbi Hillel, the aide said: "If not America, then who? If not on Iran, then on what? And if not now, then when?"