By Barrie Dunsmore

Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus
Sunday March 18th, 2012

          Two weeks ago in this space I suggested the impending visit to Washington of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could determined if there would be war with Iran some time this year. Considering the seriousness of the subject, and its consequences for the economy and the 2012 presidential election, an appraisal of where things stand in the aftermath of that visit is in order.

          No public commitments we made, but as I read between the lines, it would seem that Israel is prepared to give sanctions and diplomacy a few more months to work. In other words, it will hold off preemptive air strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities, with a precise understanding that if Iran gets a bomb, the U.S. itself will lead such an attack.

          In his public appearances, Mr. Netanyahu did not give an inch. And even privately he was none too subtle. According to the Economist magazine, at his meeting with President Barack Obama, the Israeli prime minister gave the president a copy of the Book of Esther. That book from the Hebrew Bible concerns a plan by the prime minister of the King of Persia (Iran) to massacre the empire’s Jews, and the efforts of Esther, the king’s beautiful and secretly Jewish wife, to thwart that plot. (Ultimately some Jews but many more Persians were killed.)

          But this Netanyahu visit was not a repeat of his previous trip last May when during what was supposed to be a photo opportunity in the Oval Office being transmitted world wide, he gave the president a 20 minute lecture implying Obama lacked understanding both of the Jewish people and the Middle East. Mr. Obama was not to be so humiliated again.

          As part of a carefully planned strategy, President Obama announced two significant concessions to the Israelis including an explicit commitment to use force if all else fails to prevent Iran from getting a bomb. He also promised not to resort to “containment” to deal with a nuclear Iran – the policy which ultimately worked to end the Cold War. But having satisfied two key Israeli demands, Obama publicly pushed back against Netanyahu’s argument that time was short for Israeli’s need to take preemptive action.

          Mr. Obama lamented all the “loose talk about war.” He stressed that U.S. Intelligences agencies still believe Iran has yet to make the final decision to go nuclear, He noted that the stiff sanctions on Iran are now beginning to bite, and even tougher ones are to go into effect in the coming months. Meantime, Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany have agreed to resume nuclear negotiations. And Iran has said it will open up a controversial nuclear site previously off limits to UN inspectors.

          In American news coverage of the visit, there was a notable sift. Editorial and op-ed pages finally began raising questions about the wisdom of starting another war with another Muslim country. On cable television, commentators began warning of the huge spikes in oil prices that will come with a new war, and how this would set back the incipient economic recovery. And to my mind, one of the most important changes in print, online and on the air, was the sudden recognition that most Israelis were far more skeptical of war with Iran, than were most Americans. NBC commentator Andrea Mitchell made a point of talking about her conversations with Israeli journalists traveling with Netanyahu, many of whom apparently were equally concerned about all the war talk. To top things off, the widely watched 60 Minutes on CBS, gave its lead spot to Meir Dagan, who has been perhaps the most significant Israeli opponent of a preemptive strike against Iran. And he has the right credentials, as Leslie Stahl explained in her introduction:

          “Mr. Obama has been arguing there's still time to let sanctions and diplomacy do the job (in Iran) And he said some top intelligence officials in Israel side with him.  Actually, you'll hear from one of them tonight: Meir Dagan, former chief of the Mossad, Israel's equivalent of the CIA. It's unheard of for someone who held such a high-classified position to speak out publicly, but he told us he felt compelled to talk, because he is so opposed to a preemptive Israeli strike against Iran anytime soon.  Dagan headed the Mossad for nearly a decade until last year. His primary, if not his only mission was to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb. And he says there is time to wait, perhaps as long as three years.”

          To hear that introduction and then see and hear from Dagan himself for about twenty minutes on prime time American television, was nothing short of remarkable. This is not some warm and cuddly peace-nik. Dagan is a warrior who has overseen an often deadly policy involving the deaths of numerous Iranian scientists, among other things. This is what makes his warnings against preemption all the more credible.
One final reason I think Prime Minister Netanyahu may be prepared to give diplomacy and sanctions a chance - he reads the polls too, and the latest to be published in Israel should give him second thoughts about preemption.

          In a February survey of Israeli Jews sponsored by Tel Aviv University, two thirds oppose a military strike without US assistance. A poll commissioned by the liberal Haaretz newspaper during Netanyahu’s Washington visit indicated that 58 percent were against a unilateral attack. Note that in both cases, Israelis did not want to do the job alone- either because they feared the effort would fail, or because it would isolate Israel from America. Perceptions change, however, if the US comes on board: - 65 percent of Israelis would support an attack coordinated with Washington.

          To sum up, I believe there is now some time for sanctions and diplomacy to play out in Iran. But this policy is going to have to show some tangible results in the coming months. Otherwise we are still headed for another calamitous war.

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