News Analysis: Unilateral Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear infrastructure still avoidable

2012-12-06 21:55:19 GMT2012-12-07 05:55:19(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

by Adam Gonn

JERUSALEM, Dec. 6 (Xinhua) -- When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took to the podium of the United Nations General Assembly during its opening session on Sept. 27, he reiterated that Iran can't be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons.

Although Netanyahu called on the international community to establish red lines for the amount of uranium Iran would be allowed to enrich, he did not state, as he had done in the past, that Israel will take military action if it sees no other option to stop Iran's nuclear program.

Despite intense Israeli diplomatic efforts, no red lines were established and Netanyahu has since the speech been forced to refocus his attention to the matters closer to home. The UN General Assembly backed Palestinian National Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas' proposal to upgrade the Palestinians to a non- member state on Nov. 28; and only a week earlier, after years of low level conflict between Israel and Palestinian militant groups in Gaza, the conflict escalated to eight days of intensive fighting.

Still in the run-up to the Israeli elections on Jan. 22, 2013, which picked up speed after the eight-day fighting ended, Netanyahu has made Iran one of the main issues. He hasn't changed his standpoint that Iran is an existential threat to Israel, referring to statements by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Israel should be wiped off the map.

"First of all, it's very dangerous to make predictions in the Middle East nowadays, but I doubt very much that there will be direct confrontation between Israel and Iran," Prof. Meir Litvak from Tel Aviv University told Xinhua on Thursday.

"The reelection of [United States President Barack] Obama, plus the looming crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations and the effect it will have on Israeli-American relations, will make it extremely difficult for Netanyahu to contemplate a move against Iran," Litvak said.

While Obama has also stated that Iran can't be allowed to get nuclear weapons, his timetable for when military would be the only option left is considerably furtherer in the future than Israel's, a difference often described by the expression that their clock are "ticking at different speeds."

The discrepancy in the urgency of the matter is down to two factors: the United States is farther away from Iran than Israel; due to its superior military capabilities, the United States can wait much longer before taking military action and still be confident of being successful.

For instance, if Iran moves some of its operations underground, the United States could still launch a strike that would halt the enrichment of uranium, while Israel does not have such abilities.

Whereas, the United States and Israel both opposed Abbas' UN bid, stating the Palestinian statehood can only be achieved via peace negotiations, not via unilateral actions in the UN.

Just one day after the resolution passed, the Israeli government approved the construction of 3,000 housing units in eastern Jerusalem, including the E1 area which connects the city with the West Bank. The decision was criticized by the Americans.

DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS

Meir Javedanfar, a lecturer on Iranian affairs at the Interdisciplinary-Center in Herzliya, said that he doesn't think there will be a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran because Israel doesn't have the political capital to do so. Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians haven't been able to convince the United States and other members of the international community that a strike is the only option left.

"Unless the Iranians kick out all the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, the chance of a military strike is low, Javedanfar said. "If there is ever going to be a military strike, most probably it will be Americans doing it."

"We are going to see renewed negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, and probably a serious offer by the Americans," he added. The P5+1 consists of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany.

One such possible offer could, according to Javedanfar, be something along the lines that if the Iranians agrees to halt enrichment at 20 percent and ship out all uranium over 20 percent and agree to get inspections, then it might be enough for Israel to back down.

Litvak noted that in addition to the official P5+1 negotiations, reports have been circulating that there might be a direct American-Iranian negotiation. "And that would preclude any possibility of an Israeli move against Iran," he argued.

SOONER RATHER THAN LATER

Nevertheless, not everyone is convinced as Litvak and Javedanfar that Israel won't attack. Prof. Gerald Steinberg, of Bar-Ilan University, said that Israel will launch a strike " earlier in the year rather than later."

Steinberg argued that the ongoing civil war in Syria means Iran is losing its close ally and that Iran's ability to retaliate against Israel via Hezbollah in Lebanon is decreasing. In addition, the eight days conflict between Israel and Hamas means that "Hamas basically [has been] removed as an actor for 2013" due to the losses it suffered.

"Israel made it very clear that it will act in its own interests if necessary, and Obama acknowledged that," Steinberg said regarding any possible American resistance to Israel's plans.

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