The Dark Cloud on the Horizon
Why Israelis eye a potentially nuclear-armed Iran and worry that a cataclysm can't be averted
Time running out. Israeli leaders have been warning the world for decades about Iran, and the issue will be first among Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's talking points at his meeting next week at the White House with President Bush, who, of course, needs no warnings on the subject. Olmert comes to Washington on the heels of his unsuccessful attempt in Moscow to persuade President Vladimir Putin to take a tougher line on Iran.
For Olmert, like most of Israel's political leadership, there is growing anxiety that time is running out for a diplomatic fix. Iran is brazenly defying U.N. Security Council demands to suspend its uranium enrichment program-a key step toward bomb making-and the imposition of punitive international sanctions must get a nod from reluctant Russia and China. "The Iranians need to fear that something that they do not want to happen to them will happen to them," Olmert said in Moscow, without specifying what that something was. Returning to Israel, he sounded a theme that is central to Israel's view of Iran: the comparison of that country to Nazi Germany, and of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler. "We shall never repeat the mistakes of 60 years ago," Olmert said, "of burying our heads in the sand, ignoring what was being heard then when it was still possible to save lives."
Israelis have been likening their arch-enemies to Hitler since the days of Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Palestinian leader in the 1948 war. Husseini, however, gave credibility to the analogy with his avid public support for the Nazis in World War II. Similarly, Ahmadinejad invited the comparison to Hitler with his remark that the Holocaust was a "myth," his hosting of a cartoon exhibition in Tehran that mocked Jewish sensitivities about the Nazi genocide, and his call for Israel to be "wiped off the map."
Between the natural fears of the Israeli public, the often-fiery rhetoric of Israeli politicians, and the scare headlines in the Israeli tabloids, the national stress level over Iran keeps climbing. So far, Iran has reported progress with uranium enrichment, though only to a low level suitable for fueling a nuclear power reactor. Producing bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium remains a major hurdle, as does creating a workable bomb that could be engineered into a missile warhead.
A key question now is how much time is left. Israeli intelligence has predicted that Iran could be able to make a nuclear bomb by 2008, though American intelligence estimates put the probable date closer to 2015. That gap in time is the difference between whether Iran constitutes a crisis or still just a problem. Iran claims it is only interested in developing civilian nuclear power.
Dread. Yet the deepening dread that Iran is preparing a death blow for Israel, and the hardening conviction that Israel may have no choice but to strike first, are reminiscent of the agonizing, two-week "waiting period" that preceded Israel's pre-emptive aerial assault on the Egyptian Air Force that launched, and effectively decided, the 1967 Six-Day War. Israelis want this current crisis decided-and that desire will eventually draw a hard line beyond which efforts for a diplomatic resolution may be moot.