By Shmuel Rosner in Washington and Aluf Benn in Jerusalem

Standing on the deck of his ship, Vice Admiral Doug Crowder, the senior commander of the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, rebuffed the speculations directed at him. No, he said, in reference to the large-scale military maneuvers in the Indian Ocean, there is “no connection between this exercise and any other country” – that is, Iran or China. Nevertheless, this was one of the largest exercises ever, right at the mouth of the Arabian Sea, a collaboration between the United States and India, with the active participation of forces from Japan, Australia and Singapore. The exercise was called Operation Malabar, and 28 ships, one submarine and more than 150 fighter planes took part in it. It ended a few days ago.

In recent months, the USS Nimitz, an aircraft carrier that also participated in the exercise, has been stationed in the Persian Gulf, serving as a major part of the American military force building up on Iran’s border. Of late, the Nimitz and the USS John C. Stennis, yet another carrier, have been sailing back and forth in the waters of the Gulf. The USS Enterprise has also been part of the rotation. This week it emerged that the United States is also planning to build a military base on the land border with Iran, albeit a small one. It is supposed to serve as a crossing point on the way to Baghdad and is intended to prevent the passage of unwanted visitors.

The effort to prevent Iran from joining the prestigious club of nuclear powers will top Israel’s strategic and diplomatic agenda during the new year. There is no national or international issue that is more important, and the decisions that will be made by U.S. President George W. Bush will shape the regional balance of power for many years to come. The talks Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is conducting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas will be a sideshow, no more than a warm-up act, even if they result in agreements, understandings and spectacular ceremonies.

The Iranian atom has been engaging Israel’s defense and strategic establishment for nearly 15 years but only during the past year – in the wake of the decrease in Palestinian suicide terror, the Israel Defense Forces’ failure to deal with Hezbollah, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threats of destruction – that the threat has begun to sink into public consciousness and to feature in public opinion polls as the principal one to Israel.

So far, this fear has not found expression in Israel’s overt behavior: Real estate prices are soaring and there is no word of a wave of emigration. At most, Israelis of European descent are acquiring foreign passports for a rainy day, but it is not at all clear whether this trend is connected to the Iranian threat.

The government is dealing with the Iranian issue behind closed doors and is saying little, on the grounds that it is “an international and not an Israeli problem.” In fact, there is not even a real political debate concerning Iran. Even the extreme left is not proposing that Israel hold a dialogue with a bitter foe such as Ahmadinejad, and the right is avoiding public exhortations to launch an attack on the Iranian nuclear installations. Everyone is united in calling for an increase in international pressure on Tehran – pressure that has thus far resulted in “signs of success,” which are in actual fact quite far from success.

Washington. The moment of truth is approaching

At the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore Center Arena, known locally as the Whitt, the contenders for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination gathered last week for the first political debate of the fall. Toward the end of the discussion they were asked to weigh in on the following scenario regarding Iran: “Its nuclear program has continued to advance. United Nations weapons inspectors are now saying that it appears Iran is on the verge of being able to produce, and may already be producing, nuclear weapons. Iran has suspended its cooperation with the UN nuclear agency and has asked the inspectors to leave the country. Cross-border incidents in Iraq involving elements of the Revolutionary Guard continue to increase and pose a continuing problem for U.S. forces there and for the Iraqis as well. The UN Security Council has imposed some economic sanctions on Iran, but has refused to authorize the use of force against that country. In addition, the threats by Iran’s leader against Israel have become more pronounced and more extreme. What do you do?”

Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas replied: “I think the problem with your question and scenario is it’s an all too likely scenario. What you’re describing is much of the situation we’re facing today.” Senator John McCain of Arizona agreed. “Your hypothetical is closer to reality than many of us appreciate,” he said. In any case, it is doubtful the decision will wait for president McCain, or Brownback, or Rudy Giuliani or even for one of the Democratic candidates, who now look like they have a better chance of winning the election. The public silence and the slow progress of Iran’s nuclear engineers have allowed the frequent postponement of the decision. However, this coming year, Bush’s last in the White House (his terms ends in January 2009), the fence-sitting will come to an end.

Even though it often seems like the American president is no more than a lame duck, and Bush has been looking like that for some time now, the American presidency has a long tradition of making crucial decisions in an election year. This is true both with regard to matters that concern the U.S. and matters that concern Israel, and it affects presidents running for re-election, like Harry Truman, the U.S. leader who recognized Israel, as well as presidents ending their term in office, like Lyndon B. Johnson, who approved the sale of Phantom jets to Israel, and Ronald Reagan, who entered into a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The current president, too, sent a famous letter to former prime minister Ariel Sharon in his previous election year, 2004.

But the envelope Bush will consider sending to Iran is heavier and its postage is more costly. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who met Bush during a short summer vacation he spent not far from the Bush family estate in Penobscot, Maine, correctly identified the approaching moment of decision. The Iranian nuclear program, he declared upon his return, is the number 1 international problem. And if this is how things look from tranquil Paris, certainly they appear this way in threatened Israel.

Ever since the cease-fire in Lebanon, the regional arena has been preparing for a confrontation between the United States and Iran that will determine which of the two will be the leading power in the region. As has been the case before every major war in history, this time, too, the two sides are forming alliances. The Iranians with Syria, Hezbollah and “Hamastan” in the Gaza Strip, and more loosely with Russia; the Americans with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Fatah in the West Bank, and Israel. These alliances are manifested in massive transfers of arms and military aid, in increasing operational coordination between Iran and its partners and, from another angle, in an attempt to revive the peace process between Israel and the Arabs.

The gathering forces themselves testify that a war is inevitable. Or they could lead to an increase in deterrence and give rise to a cold war in the Middle East that would manifest itself in a struggle for spheres of influence and wars by proxy, like the Second Lebanon War or Hamas’ takeover of Gaza.

Bush will have to decide whether to throw his waning power into a final fight against Iran or to procrastinate in barren diplomatic talks and pass the buck to his successor. The risks of an attack on Iran are tremendous. Iran is strong enough to respond and to cause harm around the world. It is doubtful that a new president would want to take upon him- or herself the risk of a new war in the Middle East. This is why, if Bush blinks and refrains from taking action, Iran will be able to luxuriate in its new status as the world’s 10th nuclear power. Tenth, but certainly not last.

Assessments have already been written in Washington predicting that many states will follow in Iran’s footsteps: Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia. The nuclear anti-proliferation regime will collapse – in the Middle East of all places, where the ties between states and dubious organizations can make Washington’s ultimate nightmare scenario come true: the atom in the service of terror.

Jerusalem and Ramallah. Lining up

And if Bush hesitates, will Israel attack Iran on its own? Olmert has declared that Israel will not countenance a nuclear Iran. In so doing he signaled his continued allegiance to the “Begin doctrine,” what researchers and theoreticians have associated with the destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. It holds that Israel will use force to prevent hostile elements in the region from obtaining nuclear weapons.

In embarking on the Second Lebanon War, and as has become evident as a result of decisions he made in its wake, Olmert has demonstrated that he does not hesitate to use force. Certainly not when an experienced and activist defense minister like Ehud Barak is at his side. The question is whether this determination will suffice when the relevant targets are distant, scattered and fortified in deep bunkers.

There are quite a few Israeli experts and officials who do not believe in a solution by force. In their opinion, while Ahmadinejad and his buddies want power and influence, they are not crazy and will not dare to use nuclear weapons. In contrast, the Likud’s chair, MK Benjamin Netanyahu, likes to say that the Iranians would agree to lose a million lives in an attempt to destroy the Zionist project.

For now, Israel’s main contribution to the formation of a front against Iran has not been in the military arena but rather in advancing negotiations with the Palestinians. Judging by their public statements, Bush and Olmert would be more than happy to forge a deal between them to the effect that an evacuation of the settlements and an end to the Israeli occupation would be rewarded with the destruction of Iran’s nuclear installations. Ofra and Beit El in return for Natanz and Isfahan. Such a deal would help both states justify their actions: Olmert would be able to tell the settlers and their supporters that the evacuation constitutes a reasonable price for the elimination of an existential danger. Bush, in turn, would be able to deal with his European and Arab critics by presenting them with an impressive achievement in a matter where others have so far failed. But this is nothing but a fantasy. Bush and Olmert aren’t running the world by themselves and the reality in which they are acting is far more complex.

Nevertheless, Olmert is moving in this direction in the talks he is holding with Mahmoud Abbas on a formula for ending the conflict. He has developed good personal relations with the Palestinian leader in their one-on-one meetings in the prime minister’s private study. They praise one another to other people.

According to Israelis with connections to the Palestinian side, the veteran Abbas has been surprised by his interlocutor’s inexperience. “I can’t believe you aren’t insisting on this,” Abbas told Olmert in reference to one of the issues that was discussed at length and did not result in any agreement during the Oslo period. Olmert offered him a number of Jerusalem neighborhoods and was interested in whether the “safe passage” between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank could be considered an exchange of territories that would satisfy the Palestinians in exchange for the annexation of settlement blocs to Israel. They also spoke a great deal about the refugees.

The deadline Bush set for them, the peace conference in November (“It isn’t a conference, it’s a meeting,” Olmert has been insisting, in coordination with the Americans), obligates them to arrive at “something.” This something will not consist of a signed agreement along the lines of Oslo but rather will be a joint statement, an agreed-upon document or a speech by Bush with whose contents Abbas and Olmert will agree. The conference is supposed to be followed by more detailed negotiations that will be reinforced by an Israeli gesture to the Palestinians. Hamas and its friends will of course try to spoil the party, with terror attacks or an escalation in Qassam rockets, which will drag the IDF back into Gaza and cause the delicate diplomatic process to implode.

In agreeing to meet with Olmert on Monday in Jerusalem, Abbas demonstrated that he was ignoring Syria’s claim of an Israel Air Force infiltration into its territory and showed that he would rather advance the agreement with Israel than evince solidarity with the Arab country that is providing sponsorship for his rivals. But this is a small gesture. It will be far more interesting to see whether Saudi Arabia shakes off its traditional reticence and sends a senior representative to the Washington conference, who will have his picture taken with Olmert and indicate the support of King Abdullah, the guardian of Islam’s holy places, for the move of reconciliation with Israel. If that happens – and Olmert believes it will – the front against Iran will receive important reinforcement. This would also serve as a reminder to Bush that the moment of truth is approaching: Saudi Arabia, just like Israel, does not want a nuclear Iran as a neighbor.

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