JERUSALEM (JTA) -- After the shock of last week's U.S. intelligence estimate that found that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003, Israel is reshaping its Iran strategy.
Israel essentially is arguing that the U.S. assessment is dangerously misleading and that Tehran is as determined as ever to acquire nuclear weapons.
The Israeli dilemma is how to prove Iran is cheating without being accused of trying to push the United States into war. That is why the official strategy is to work quietly behind the scenes.
Israel's top intelligence agencies all believe Iran is still at full throttle to produce a nuclear bomb and will be capable of doing so by 2009 or 2010.
The new Israeli strategy is based on four main elements:
· actively pushing for stiffer international sanctions on Iran, despite the U.S. report;
· working quietly behind the scenes to convince others through Israel's own intelligence material that Iran is intent on producing nuclear weapons;
· refraining from arguing with the U.S. assessment in public, lest Israel be seen to be trying to push the United States into military action against Iran;
· and Israel keeping open its own military options.
The National Intelligence Estimate's report is likely to affect more than Israel's strategy on Iran.
Although they won't say so openly, Israeli officials feel a deep sense of abandonment by the United States in the face of this existential threat to the Jewish state. This sentiment could have implications for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and in the Israeli domestic political arena.
The sense of abandonment places a heavy burden on Israeli decision makers.
Now that Israel is on its own, the question of what to do about an Iran on the verge of nuclear capability could be one of the biggest decisions in the history of the state, pundits say.
"It will be one of the biggest decisions an Israeli prime minister will ever have to make. And if the Americans object to an Israeli operation, it will be even bigger," former Mossad analyst Yossi Alpher, co-editor of the Israeli-Palestinian Web site Bitterlemons.org, told JTA. "In other words, if this is done against the backdrop of an Israeli-American disagreement over Iran's intentions and from our standpoint it's an existential issue, this would be a moment of truth for the State of Israel, without a doubt."
The emerging policy is the result of close consultations among Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
In a Cabinet meeting Sunday, Olmert stressed that Israel would work to "expose Iran's clandestine operations."
Barak earlier had advised the prime minister not to get into a public spat with the United States over its assessment of Iran's nuclear program but rather promoted the behind-the-scenes effort.
Livni is determined to ensure that the international alliance for sanctions against Iran does not crumble in the face of the report. Last week she briefed Israeli ambassadors worldwide, urging them to stress that even if taken at face value, the U.S. report shows that Iran can be pressured and that sanctions work.
Later, in a meeting with NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, Livni secured promises from several of her European counterparts that they would go ahead with sanctions of their own if Russia or China veto a new sanctions package in the U.N. Security Council.
Barak has hinted that Israel will keep all its options on the table.
"It is our responsibility to ensure that the right steps are taken against the Iranian regime," he declared. "Words don't stop missiles."
Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman says it doesn't even matter whether or not the Iranians have a secret military program. He argues that once the Iranians have sufficient quantities of enriched uranium -- which they continue to produce openly, ostensibly for civilian purposes -- they could manufacture a bomb in a matter of months.
Then, Lieberman said, "for them to go nuclear or not is simply a political decision."
In questioning the American intelligence assessment, Israeli analysts point to three indisputable facts: In defiance of the international community, Iran continues to enrich uranium, Iran has an advanced missile program that it continues to develop, and it could quickly reactivate its military program -- assuming it has been stopped -- to produce a bomb within a relatively short time span.
"They can stop on the edge of the project to weaponize and decide to proceed at any time," former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy said.
The bottom line in the U.S. assessment is that the Iranians, concerned by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, suspended their nuclear weapons program in 2003.
The Israeli counter-assessment is that Tehran easily could have shifted its nuclear program underground without being detected, and even if they didn't, it doesn't matter much because the transition from an advanced civilian nuclear program to weaponization is relatively simple and brief.
The Israelis say that the Jewish state, which is within range of Iranian missiles, cannot afford to take as sanguine a view of the potential threat as the Americans, who are not within range of Iran's missiles.
Israeli analysts agree that right or wrong, the U.S. intelligence estimate will prove a seminal event that reduces to zero the possibility of a U.S. military strike against Iran.
Some see the assessment as an attempt to tie the hands of an activist U.S. president; others see it as providing support to a president looking for a way to back down from an increasingly unpopular military option against Iran.
Either way, the American dial-down on Iran could affect Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
If Israel can no longer count on the United States when facing major security threats, it will be less inclined to take chances for peace with Palestinians, some analysts say.
"It is going to be a lot harder for the Americans to persuade Israel, which has been left isolated on the Iranian front, to take security risks vis-a-vis the Palestinians and also perhaps with respect to the Syrians," Shmuel Rosner and Aluf Benn wrote in Israel's daily Ha'aretz.
Alpher, however, argues that Israel has never made any explicit linkage between the Iranian and Palestinian arenas.
"Olmert has never said he would ask the public to support concessions to the Palestinians because we are getting some sort of American umbrella on Iran," Alpher said. "On the contrary, he says cutting a deal with the Palestinians is a supreme Israeli interest."
Still, the scenario that would have had the United States "take care" of Iran in return for Israeli concessions to the Palestinians has been blown out of the water.
The new situation could have implications for domestic politics, too.
If it becomes clear that Iran does not intend to go nuclear, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who has built a career around the Iranian threat, could be in trouble. Conversely, if Israel seems alone in the battle against a nuclear Iran, Netanyahu could become the man of the hour.
Does Israel have a genuine military option against Iran?
Some Israeli and foreign experts are skeptical, given the large number of widely dispersed and well-fortified nuclear targets in Iran. Moreover, Iran would be able to retaliate with missiles fired from its own territory, as well as by its proxies in Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. The Islamic Republic also could unleash terrorist attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets abroad.
Nevertheless, Israel has built a highly sophisticated elite strike force capable of hitting a wide range of Iranian targets. The Israeli estimate is that it could put the Iranian program back several years.
Israel, however, probably would need U.S. approval for any such strike.
With U.S. forces active nearby, the Israel Air Force would find it extremely difficult to operate over Iran without first receiving American "friend-or-foe" flight codes for the airspace over Saudi Arabia and Iraq. These codes were withheld from Israel during the 1991 Gulf War; a clash over the codes in the Iranian context would be far more serious.
It could mean back to square one: Even though Israel rejects the new U.S. reading of Iranian intentions, it remains dependent on U.S. cooperation for any future operation concerning Iran.