It wasn't only Israelis who were shocked this week at the political maneuver that canceled general elections at the last minute and produced a national unity government. Officials in Arab capitals, America, and Europe were trying to figure out whether behind the written coalition agreement stood a secret plan, one that would culminate in an Israeli attack in Iran.
It is doubtful that anyone outside the triumvirate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Kadima Chairman Shaul Mofaz has a clear answer to that question. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton arrived in Jerusalem two days ago for a uncharacteristic, lightning-quick meeting, in efforts to gather any piece of information on the political mood in Israel. The meeting was scheduled before this week's political earthquake, but it became far more relevant once it happened. The West fears that Israel will point its fighter jets eastward, so they sent Ashton to find out how much of a chance Israel was willing to give international negotiations with Iran, and whether the new coalition meant that broad political and public support was being prepared for a complicated offensive in Iran.
Ashton, who will head the second round of talks between Iran and the six world powers (also known as the P5 + 1: permanent U.N. Security Council members the U.S., U.K., China, Russia and France, plus Germany), in Baghdad this time, did not leave Jerusalem with clear answers. The triumvirate, together with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, maintained a stern and unified stance: As long as Iran doesn't feel like it is facing a real threat of attack, it won't back down from its nuclear aspirations. The world must impose sanctions, and then make them even tougher, rather than sinking into useless, unproductive negotiations.
Sources reported that Ashton made it clear that this would not be the case. Never, she insisted, would Iran be permitted to “play games.” The sanctions already in place will not be reversed and the talks with Tehran are being conducted in a “very tough” manner out of a clear understanding of the severity of the situation and the urgency of the issue.
Israel, the sources added, needn't make threats: The bells are ringing loudly enough all over the world. But Jerusalem remains unconvinced. Israeli concerns are still confined to private quarters, but they may soon leak out. The main concern is that the world is longing for an agreement with Tehran, almost at any cost. Each player has its own reasons. For Russia and China it is a principle; U.S. President Barack Obama is afraid to make a move ahead of presidential elections; in France there is a new president who was elected on the votes of the Left and the immigrants; he certainly doesn't want to begin his term with a draconian hike in oil prices. We are left with the U.K. and Germany, who, despite their determination, cannot spearhead an international initiative alone. The (sad) conclusion is this: Even if things are being presented otherwise, we are alone. Our fate is in our own hands.
The real test will be in the Baghdad talks. The Israeli demands, which were raised in the meeting with Ashton again this week, are very clear: an absolute halt to all uranium enrichment activity, the removal of all material already enriched to 20 percent from Iran, and the decommissioning of the new nuclear facility in Fordo.
Iran has already declared that it will not comply with these demands. Various media reports in recent weeks have suggested several possibilities for compromise, all of which are far from satisfying from Israel's perspective.
What does all this mean? Just as in every other security issue in Israel, there are three options: Iran will succumb to the pressure and abandon its nuclear program entirely (the chances of this happening are slim to none), or Iran will abandon the talks and sever all ties with the West (the chances of this happening are low for fear of an Israeli, Western or joint attack), or Iran will buy time and drag its feet and try to arrive at a compromise that would allow it to continue nuclear development without appearing to be doing so (the chances of this happening are very high).
The third option is, of course, Israel's worst nightmare: for the world to congratulate itself on striking a deal with Iran, while Israel must decide whether it will fall in line, or forge ahead with an attack (and risk not only a war with Iran but also international approbation). Several political commentators surmised this week that Netanyahu, looking at his options, broadened his coalition to prepare for precisely such a decision. But like other assessments that were cast into the commentary trash, this assessment is also wrong. The only reasons behind Netanyahu's and Mofaz's decision to establish a unity government were political (Mofaz feared decimation at the polls, Netanyahu feared being extorted by small parties). The time to decide on Iran has not yet arrived.
Mofaz has so far openly opposed an attack on Iran. True, he suffixed his disapproval with "at this time," but in interviews immediately following his victory in the Kadima primary he insisted that he believed that Israel still had approximately two years to address the Iran issue by non-military means. It would be difficult to dismiss his opinion as irrelevant, as was done to former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and former Israel Security Agency director Yuval Diskin. All the years Mofaz spent as the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee have given him continuous, intimate access to all the secrets, including the most pertinent information on Iran.
Mofaz is knowledgeable, up to date, proficient and curious. He is an obsessive documenter (ever since his time in the military he tends to write everything down in big yellow notebooks). In their meetings with Mofaz at the Knesset, defense heads got the impression from him that an attack in Iran at this time would not only be undesirable, it could be dangerous.
When he joins the prime minister's intimate circle -- the Forum of Eight senior ministers, which will now become the Forum of Nine -- Mofaz will find ministers Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Moshe Ya'alon with a stance similar to his own. On the opposing end he will find Netanyahu and Barak, and, to a lesser degree, Lieberman and Interior Minister Eli Yishai. It will be interesting to see the dynamics between the three former IDF chiefs of general staff (Barak, Ya'alon and Mofaz) on Iran, and on anything really, given their personal and political rivalries. Even more interesting will be the dynamics between this opinionated, experienced and at times aggressive trio and defense heads, especially current IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz.
There will be those, most likely, who will see this as another sign of a coming attack in Iran. Netanyahu and Barak, having failed to win the defense establishment's support for an attack, are placing obstacles in their path in clever ways. Gantz will now face three of his predecessors, one of which is his friend, Mofaz; the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee will probably now be headed by Kadima MK Avi Dichter, a former head of the Israel Security Agency, whose very presence in Netanyahu's coalition gives the government a seal of approval -- a counterweight to the harsh criticism Diskin issued at Netanyahu. In such a constellation, the commentators would say, Netanyahu will have the complete freedom to make a decision, any decision.
An attack on Iran will probably not be on the table until spring 2013 at the earliest. There are the nuclear talks and the U.S. elections. By then, if Iran pokes the world in the eye, the U.S. may very well join in on an attack, or possibly even spearhead one.
That is the reason that Mofaz believes that there is plenty of time, and that we should wait. On the other hand, Barak keeps warning that Iran will have entered the "zone of immunity" by then, and will be invulnerable to Israeli attack, free to push ahead toward a nuclear weapon. Since currently it is Barak and Netanyahu who set the tone, Israel is expected to kick and scream, as it did with Ashton, to pressure the world to act now.
Will it happen? We need to hope for the best, and prepare for the worst. So believes the newest recruit to the inner circle of decisionmakers on Iran, who, with all due respect to Mofaz, is far more pivotal -- Amir Eshel, who will assume the role of Israel Air Force commander on Monday. He will have to prepare, and voice an opinion on the one issue that didn't factor into the establishment of the unity government, but hangs heavily over it.